Sites Violating Disability Laws Squeezed for Financial Compensation – Orange County Register

Andres Gomez is a serial plaintiff.

That means Gomez, who says he’s legally blind, seeks out websites he can’t access and is suing them for violating state and federal disability statutes.

By one estimate, the 34-year-old Miami man has filed more than 600 disability compliance lawsuits in Florida and California since 2015, sometimes famously. Gomez sued the Kardashians’ clothing store, Dash, in 2016 and has gone after other big-name fashion retailers for claiming their websites aren’t compatible with the screen-reading software he’s reportedly using to navigate the Internet, according to published reports.

His attorney calls Gomez a “tester” for the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, a crusader who fights for the rights of the disabled and tries to force companies to comply with online policies by attacking their wallets.

However, an Orange County law firm claims Gomez is a fraud and has better vision than he admits. Tustin-based law firm Karlin alleges Gomez illegally milked millions of dollars in settlements by continuing a hoax and heavily arming corporations large and small.

The Karlin company has obtained dismissals in 17 of Gomez’s lawsuits.

Dan Danet, an attorney for the firm, said Gomez is a crusader, not for the social good but for his own gain. Danet claimed Gomez was exaggerating his level of blindness to get money. “He’s going against everyone,” Danet said.

A real concern

Gomez’s attorney, Dennis Price of San Francisco, accused the Karlin company of getting dirty.

“It’s just a smear, a derogatory smear,” Price said. “He’s an ADA tester. … Some people have made it their life’s work to make the ADA work, and Mr. Gomez is one of those people.”

Access to online services is a real problem for people with disabilities as the world continues to shift from the stationary to the internet. Federal and state laws require online sites to be accessible, among other things, to screen readers, software that reads material aloud to the blind. The websites must have closed captioning services for the deaf and hard of hearing. Certain color schemes must be avoided in favor of color blind people. Visitors who cannot use a mouse must be able to navigate the site using their keyboard.

“Without accessibility, the entire online world (for the disabled) becomes unusable,” said Michel Bien, a San Francisco civil rights attorney. “We keep forgetting people with disabilities.”

State law allows for damages

California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act allows plaintiffs to seek damages of at least $4,000 per incident plus attorneys’ fees. Seeking damages is one of the ways disability laws are enforced, lawyers say. But it also opens the door to lawsuit thieves who practically make a living by soliciting money from websites that are falling short.

“The mere fact that someone files a lot of lawsuits doesn’t make anything wrong,” Bien said. But he frowns on plaintiffs making settlements without ensuring the sites are matched.

“I find it disturbing when I hear reports of lawyers saying, ‘You don’t have to solve your problems, just give me a check for $10,000.’ “

Midway City resident Kyle Wong recently asked real estate agent Kristina Fruneaux for $16,000 for a website she shut down a year ago. Wong did not say why he was disabled in his letter of formal notice, only that he could not navigate their website, which he recently visited.

Wong threatened to report Fruneaux to the US Department of Justice and file a federal lawsuit. “I don’t want to go that route,” he ended the letter of demand.

“Evil Intrigues”

Fruneaux responded by firing off a letter of her own — to the Orange County Attorney’s Office. She wrote that Wong “fished for ill-gotten gains and unearned profits from victims of his evil schemes.”

“For me, that’s blackmail,” Fruneaux said in an interview. “Suddenly I’m not motivated to have a website.”

Wong has reportedly sent similar letters of formal notice to 50 other real estate agents in Orange County, some of whom have consulted with Danet and considered hiring him. Wong could not be reached for comment.

The problem of ADA lawsuits is so big — it includes physical disabilities in offices and retail stores, as well as online accessibility — that it has spawned a kind of cottage industry among attorneys. It represents a large part of the business of the Karlin Law Office.

No federal standards

Part of the churn is due to the lack of federal standards for online accessibility violations, no guidance on how many violations are too many.

Victor Gomez, executive director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said the U.S. Department of Justice needs to step in and set some limits, possibly giving offending companies a grace period to fix their websites.

“The problem is that there are no clear federal guidelines, leaving companies vulnerable to lawsuits on ADA sites where they are forced to settle because the amounts they are being asked to pay are well below the cost of litigation and defense,” said Gomez, not related to Andres Gomez.

“In these tough economic times, it’s unacceptable that many companies don’t learn about website accessibility until they’re served with complaints,” he said.

Some companies use a software tool available to anyone to determine if their websites are accessible for disabled people.

Doubts arise

Fast Toys Club, which takes customers into cars at a racetrack, was one of the companies sued by Andres Gomez, who claimed to be interested in the service.

Fast Toys was among a group of customers represented by Karlin Law. In statements, Gomez said he couldn’t read text magnified 3,200%—eight times larger than the largest letter on a standard eye chart.

However, Danet said Gomez successfully used music production software in 2015 that didn’t support his screen reader and was overloaded with fine print.

Gomez also said in his affidavit that he couldn’t walk without a cane or someone to help him, that he needed handrails to negotiate stairs, and that he needed help to find his ridesharing driver, according to Danet.

But a 16-minute video created by the Karlin company showed Gomez climbing stairs without assistance, without a cane and without using the handrail. He briskly went to his ride and got into the car with no assistance in locating the vehicle.

The video also appeared to show Gomez reading his phone screen. Sites Violating Disability Laws Squeezed for Financial Compensation – Orange County Register

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