At The 19th, we’re committed to publishing journalism that you can trust throughout the critical moments that shape our democracy and our lives. Show your support during our Fall Member Drive, and your donation will be matched. Double your gift today.
Disability advocates are breathing a sigh of relief after the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday to dismiss as moot Acheson Hotels LLC. v. Laufer, a case that could have gutted a key enforcement tool of the Americans with Disabilities Act nationwide.
At issue was whether civil rights testers have standing to sue hotels they have no intention of staying at, a practice that disability and civil rights advocates argue is necessary to force businesses to comply with accessibility standards set by the ADA. Standing is the right to sue by dint of being an impacted party,
“We are thrilled tester standing remains a tool under the ADA,” said Shira Wakschlag, senior director of legal advocacy and general counsel for the Arc of the United States. The Arc advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
The case involved Deborah Laufer, a disabled woman and self-described civil rights tester who sued hundreds of hotels for not listing accessibility information on their websites — a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Laufer did not intend to stay in these hotels.
Acheson Hotels LLC, which owns the Coast Village Inn and Cottages in Maine, a hotel named in one of Laufer’s lawsuits, argued that Laufer lacked standing.
- Previous Coverage:
Businesses like hotels and restaurants have long argued that private ADA lawsuits are an undue and expensive burden used to extract money for unscrupulous lawyers. Disability advocates argue that much of America is still inaccessible to them over 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and that if businesses do not want to be sued, then they should comply with the law.
The case arrived at the Supreme Court after lower federal courts split on the issue — the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the First, Fourth and 11th Circuits ruled that Laufer does have standing, while the Second, Fifth and 10th Circuits ruled she did not. The Supreme Court’s decision means that there is still some uncertainty and that tester standing will be left at the discretion of specific lower courts for now. The door is open for a future case in the Supreme Court.
Oral arguments took place in October, and the decision is the first of the Supreme Court term. Jasmine Harris, a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Carey School of Law, described the speed of the decision as surprising, but not especially odd or unusual.
“With the rhythm of the court, it’s hard to tell what’s coming down at what point. I certainly was not expecting it this quickly,” Harris said.
During oral arguments, Laufer’s legal team argued that the case was moot, or no longer relevant, because Laufer dropped her lawsuit against Acheson Hotels LLC as well as all of her other pending ADA lawsuits after her former lawyer, Tristan Gillespie, was suspended for legal malpractice. Laufer also promised the court that she would not bring further ADA lawsuits.
The decision, written by Justice Amy Coney-Barrett, accepts Laufer’s argument. “Laufer’s case against Acheson is moot, and we dismiss it on that ground. We emphasize, however, that we might exercise our discretion differently in a future case,” Coney-Barrett wrote.
In addition to disability rights organizations, fair housing advocates also praised the decision. There was some concern from advocates that the decision from the court could have been far-reaching, impacting civil rights testing beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Today’s decision provides stability under long-standing Supreme Court jurisprudence to those tirelessly working to advance fair housing initiatives, reinforcing the importance of preserving avenues for individuals and organizations to seek legal remedies for discriminatory practices,” Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said in a news release.
Harris described the decision as a mixed one for disability and civil rights advocates.
“I think this is not an unequivocal victory for tester standing. I think this is definitely a caveated win,” Harris said.
Harris pointed to Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence, which says, in part: “Because Laufer has not asserted a violation of a right owed to her, she has no standing. … The Court should not have avoided reaching that conclusion due to Laufer’s eleventh hour tactics. I respectfully concur in the judgment because I would vacate and remand, with instructions to dismiss for lack of standing.”
Because it is a concurrence, it does not have any legal weight, but it does suggest how Thomas and the other conservative justices may deal with a similar case in the future.
“What Justice Thomas said is that [the question of standing] can be decided. The court correctly held, though, that given the underlying facts in this particular case, that this was not the time to decide that question,” Harris said.
Wakschlag expressed similar concern about Thomas’s concurrence and is worried that the court may still rule on the issue in ways that are unfavorable to the disability community. The specific facts of this case allowed for it to be dismissed, but civil rights testing under the Americans with Disabilities Act may not be able to dodge another bullet.
“Justice Thomas basically said he would hold that Ms. Laufer did not have standing to sue under the ADA. His concurrence gives a preview of what the disability community was concerned about, in terms of undermining the precedent. Of course, it is just a concurrence,” Wakschlag said.