A new wave of lawsuits accuses 50 art galleries of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act
A new wave of lawsuits accusing art galleries of operating websites that allegedly do not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) have landed in New York courts in recent months, Artnet News has learned.
At least three New York-based visually impaired plaintiffs have filed more than 100 lawsuits against a wide range of businesses and organizations, including approximately 50 art galleries. Two law firms handled most, if not all, of the lawsuits.
A list of similar cases was filed against around 80 galleries three years ago. The main difference this time is that while the lawsuits were filed in the Southern District of New York, they now target galleries outside of New York, including Los Angeles and Miami, based on the fact that those galleries sell in New York. customers or operate websites that may be used by buyers in New York.
representatives for the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) has confirmed to Artnet News that it is aware of 50 galleries being sued in recent weeks by the same law firms as in 2018 and 2019, bringing the total to around 180 galleries. The ADAA did not release the names of the galleries being sued.
Both law firms named in court documents are based in New York Justin A. Zeller and Gottlieb Associates. Neither company responded to Artnet News’ request for comment. A search of court records confirmed that New York galleries including Casey Kaplan, Cheim & Read, Almine Rech and Los Angeles galleries Kayne Griffin and Corcoran, Kohn Gallery and Night Gallery are among dozens of people sued.
None of the galleries responded to a request for comment.
Most of the lawsuits against the galleries have been brought by a plaintiff named James Murphy, who is described as “a visually impaired and legally blind person who needs screen reader software to read website content using his computer,” according to the complaint. Another plaintiff named Yony Sosa, with an identical description of visual impairment, filed more than 80 lawsuits, according to court records, including against the Pratt Institute and Stricoff Fine Art in Chelsea, several antique shops and food and confectionery companies such as Tootsie Roll Industries. LLC.
A third plaintiff named Denise Crumwell, also described as being visually impaired, sued Cheim & Read and Casey Kaplan. She also sued a business described as The Laundress, which provides plant-based laundry and cleaning products, personal care company Love Wellness and candle supplier Boy Smells.
In the wake of the new set of demands, the ADAA recently hosted the second of two webinars in three years for member galleries in which attorney Joseph DiPalma explained the legal background and recommended resources to help galleries determine whether their websites are compliant or not.
“We’ve been tracking cases since late 2018 and have seen an increase again,” said ADAA executive director Maureen Bray. After a quiet 2020, “autumn 2021 is when we saw another big spike in these kinds of lawsuits across all sectors, but of course also in the gallery sector.”
What struck the association this time around, she said, was the extra text in the costumes that specifically talks about “physical bonding.”
“Galleries from other states, like California for example, are being sued in New York,” Bray noted, “claiming a connection here because of their participation in a New York art fair, or because their websites open them up to business from New York-based customers.
While Bray said that “galleries want their websites to be accessible to as many people as possible…the real frustration is that there are no clear and concise guidelines to make compliance simple”.
When the ADA law was first Adopted in 1990, the Internet was not as ubiquitous as it is today, leaving a vast gray area on what defines an accessible website. Since 2010, the Ministry of Justice has been working on the development of uniform guidelines. But the Trump administration, which had actively sought to reduce government regulations, abruptly stopped writing the new rules in late 2017. It remains unclear whether the Biden administration intends to tighten or further clarify the rules.
In a statement to Artnet News, Tom Stebbins, executive director of New York’s Lawsuit Reform Alliance, noted that lawyers often target specific industries so they “don’t have to change much to their cut-and-paste lawsuits.” As the pandemic accelerates public reliance on digital tools, he added, “it is more important than ever for Congress and the Biden administration to create clear rules for website accessibility. It’s time for Washington to step up and protect both businesses and people with disabilities from predatory lawyers.
Attorney Joseph DiPalma said he expects these types of cases to continue in large numbers “until there is legislation to address this issue.”
The lawsuits argue that the Justice Department first said the ADA applied to websites more than 20 years ago. They allege that each gallery is responsible for a “failure to design, build, maintain and operate its website to be fully accessible and independently usable by Applicant and other blind or visually impaired persons”.
The lawsuits further allege that the discrimination is “particularly acute during the current global COVID-19 pandemic” because “Americans living with disabilities are at higher risk of serious illness” and “sheltering on place for the duration of the pandemic. ”
The complaints also appear to link access to the website to visiting the gallery space. For example, Crumwell’s lawsuit against Casey Kaplan alleges that “on several occasions, the plaintiff was denied full use and enjoyment of the facilities, goods and services” on the gallery’s website. “These access barriers… now routinely deter Plaintiff from visiting Defendant’s brick-and-mortar art gallery and exhibits.”
Complaint states when trying to obtain purchase information a on the website, most recently in August 2021, Crumwell encountered “multiple access barriers that denied…a shopping experience similar to that of a sighted person and full and equal access.” Crumwell adds that she intends to revisit the site for information “about viewing and/or purchasing artwork” as soon as these barriers are lifted.
Among the issues cited in several of the complaints about gallery websites are empty links that contain no text; redundant links; and linked images lack alt text.
According to a recently published report from responsibility.comin 2021, there was 2,352 web accessibility lawsuits have been filed in federal court and California state court under the Unruh Act. This represents a 14.3% increase from the 2,058 cases filed nationwide in 2020. New York had the highest number of filings, with 1,474 cases.
To follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive breaking news, revealing interviews and incisive reviews that move the conversation forward.