If community bankers didn’t get their fill of legal mischief from the patent trolls, there’s a whole new game in town keeping lawyers busy. Predatory plaintiff’s attorneys have found a new source of legal exploitation to hound community banks and other small businesses with legal threats: the Americans with Disabilities Act. Unlike the patent troll problem that ICBA fought all the way through Congress, however, this new crop of law firms is relying not on flimsy patent claims, but on detailed arguments that are already making headway in the courts.
In recent months ICBA has heard from a growing chorus of community bankers who have received aggressive demand letters alleging that their websites are not in compliance with the ADA’s online accessibility standards. The letters threaten legal action against community banks that do not modify their websites to meet the law firms’ interpretations of the ADA.
Of course, accessibility is not the goal here. Community banks are second to none in their support of the ADA, and they work hard to ensure that individuals with disabilities can access their services. No, these bullying letters are about one thing—money.
How do I know? Well, for one thing, these demand letters errantly claim that the Justice Department is using existing international guidelines as a baseline requirement for website accessibility. However, the DOJ hasn’t confirmed that these guidelines are in use. In fact, the department isn’t planning to finalize its own set of standards until 2018!
This whole demand letter charade is merely an attempt to intimidate letter recipients—primarily small businesses that can be pushed around—into reaching a settlement that is profitable for these law firms. It is a simple money grab that exploits a moment of legal ambiguity to profit off community banks and other local businesses.
Well, ICBA isn’t standing for it! We’ve already called on the DOJ
to intervene in these coercive letters by releasing interim guidelines, and we’ll take this issue to the new Congress when it convenes next month. Meanwhile, we’ve released our own guidance
to help community bankers deal with them. First and foremost, community bankers cannot ignore these letters—you should work with your own lawyers and vendors to develop a plan. While these demand letters might rest on a questionable legal basis, they represent real and tangible threats that must be dealt with seriously.
I know firsthand that community bankers are committed to ADA compliance and accessibility, but community bankers who receive these letters should contact legal counsel, work your network, keep us informed and review your website to provide adequate accessibility. While the DOJ gets its act together on these accessibility standards, we must work together to fight this scourge of intimidation from firms using trolling tactics not to improve accessibility for the disabled, but merely to line their own pockets.