Northern California winery’s website accessibility lawsuit faces court denial

Some judges are pushing back on a recent wave of federal lawsuits against North Coast wineries and other California businesses over the accessibility of their websites to people with disabilities.

More than six dozen lawsuits have been filed in federal court against North Shore winemakers, according to court records. The cases have mostly been opened since last fall and by a plaintiff — Andres Gomez, described as a legally blind Miami man — and a law firm, Potter Handy, based in Southern California.

About a third of those wine-related lawsuits have already resulted in settlements, according to court records. At stake are damages under state law of $4,000 for each proven instance that a website frustrated visitors using assistive tools such as screen readers, while federal law broadly permits damages from attorneys’ fees.

The terms of the court settlements are confidential. However, a parallel lawsuit against Potter Handy filed in state court on April 11 by prosecutors in San Francisco and Los Angeles claims that the company, in the several thousand similar cases it has filed in recent years , regularly requests settlements over $10,000, a choice of many small businesses. opt for because the cost of defending these cases can be anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, according to this legal filing.

The Henry family of winegrowers and winemakers in Napa Valley found themselves in this dilemma.

They’ve operated the ranch on the northwest outskirts of Napa for 83 years, and the Henry wine brand was launched three decades ago. As a producer of around 15,000 cases a year and with public access only by appointment to the 2-decade-old production facility and tasting room, the website is critically important, according to Michael Hendry, who is part of the second generation of family owners.

“It’s a choice to throw in $100,000 or $20,000,” Hendry said.

But Hendry Winery’s legal team at Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty in Napa is among those opting to take the case further to court, encouraged by what they say are unusual developments in the law of the state. accessibility over the past month.

First, some state prosecutors have sued Potter Handy to prevent “serial filers” from taking advantage of the Unruh Act, California’s supplement to the US Federal Disabilities Act.

Second, at least a few federal judges in the North Coast website accessibility cases have issued orders to Gomez and his legal team to show why they should consider California damages in federal cases.

On April 11, the San Francisco and Los Angeles prosecutors’ offices filed a 58-page lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court, detailing the legislature’s multiple attempts over the past two decades to end the abuse of Unruh. The suit alleges that after state lawmakers in 2015 tightened rules for filing Unruh cases in state court, those claims took the cases to federal court. The prosecutor’s lawsuit seeks to prevent the company from pursuing such cases, reimburse settlements and penalize the attorneys involved $2,500 per violation.

Potter Handy’s attorney, Dennis Price, who speaks on behalf of the firm, did not respond to requests for comment on the prosecutors’ case or the website’s accessibility matters. He sent this reaction to Bloomberg on the San Francisco-Los Angeles lawsuit: “It’s unfortunate that these ADs are going after disability access advocates for political reasons. Both ADs face serious threats recalls and file these claims in order to generate support.”

Then, on April 19, the federal judge in the case against Muscardini Cellars in the Sonoma Valley issued a show cause order, requiring Gomez to demonstrate within 21 days why the court “should not decline additional jurisdiction over the claim. of the Unruh law”.

That jurisdiction is the usual practice of federal courts considering state law claims, except in “exceptional circumstances,” Judge Vince Chhabria wrote. The judge pointed to the 2021 and 2022 rulings in the Federal District and Appellate cases that “high frequency” litigants may qualify as such “exceptional circumstances.”

Such show cause orders have also been issued in at least the cases against Raymond Vineyard in Napa Valley. But attorneys involved in those cases say they plan to ask judges in their other cases involving Gomez to consider making such orders as well.

An earlier show cause order was issued on April 8 in the case against fellow Napa Valley winemaker, Kieu Hoang Winery. In that action, Judge Susan Illston pointed to Gomez’s February testimony in a website accessibility case against Gates Estates Sotheby’s International Realty in Calistoga that he had no current plans to visit the Valley but enjoyed “window shopping” for properties on local real estate websites. .

Illston referenced the 2019 and 2021 Federal District and Appellate decisions to determine that “there appears to be no basis for a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and therefore this Court has no jurisdiction in the matter”.

But Potter Handy’s attorney, Christopher Seabock, filed a response before Ilston’s April 8 deadline that relied heavily on the US Department of Justice’s March 18 guidelines on web accessibility under of the ADA.

“It is not necessary for an individual to intend to visit the physical business to bring a lawsuit for lack of website accessibility,” Seabock wrote.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before joining the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Contact him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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