CoStar Sued For Alleged Lack Of Accessibility For Blind On Apartments.com
A federal lawsuit filed on May 5 in the Southern District of New York alleges that Apartments.com violated the civil rights of Bronx resident Jose Quezada in “its failure to design, construct, maintain, and operate its website to be fully accessible" to the blind and visually impaired.
Quezada’s attorney, Queens-based Mars Khaimov, is seeking class-action status that would include any visually impaired or blind person in New York City who has had difficulty using Apartments.com’s services.
Quezada, who is legally blind himself, filed similar lawsuits against Expedia, CBS and The New York Times with the Southern District in February, all of which cite 1990’s landmark Americans with Disabilities Act as the relevant law allegedly violated by the defendants. Khaimov represented Quezada in filing all three lawsuits and declined to comment when reached by Bisnow. Quezada has filed at least two more lawsuits alleging ADA violations against business websites since fall 2020, according to Southern District court records.
The lawsuit against CoStar alleges that Apartments.com has, from the time of its inception through today, contained several elements that make the site inaccessible for anyone using screen-reading technology, which allows visually impaired users to access the internet.
The availability of tools needed to rectify such issues qualifies CoStar’s lack of accessibility as intentional discrimination, the suit alleges. The lawsuit seeks several permanent injunctions against CoStar, including hiring a mutually agreed-upon consultant to help it update its website to meet and maintain accessibility standards. The suit also seeks compensatory damages.
Internet accessibility for the blind is a far-reaching issue. Different studies have shown that the vast majority of commonly used websites have some sort of accessibility block for the visually impaired. The ADA is over 30 years old, makes no mention of websites, leaving its application to the internet open to interpretation — and litigation.
“It was Congress’ intent for the law to be evergreen and technology-neutral,” American Council for the Blind Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs Clark Rachfal told Bisnow. “We certainly wouldn’t want Congress to pretend they were capable of predicting what technology would be coming in the future … The Department of Justice has been clear for over 20 years that websites are subject to the protections of the ADA.”
Representatives from CoStar declined to comment on Quezada’s suit, referring Bisnow to a statement posted to the Apartments.com accessibility page, reachable from a link on the bottom of the site.
“The Apartments.com Network is committed to providing usable and accessible content for all of our users, including those with disabilities," the statement reads. It is supplemented with contact information for Apartments.com technical support. "Our accessibility efforts are based on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)'s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, Levels A and AA. We welcome any suggestions and comments about improving the digital experience of our mobile and web applications.”
Quezada’s suit also references the standards set forth in the WCAG, alleging that CoStar fails to meet those standards in 13 different ways. To be accessible to users dependent on screen reading software, links and entry fields need to be properly titled in a website’s code, and photos need to have alternate text describing what the image depicts, among other elements.
The number of lawsuits alleging ADA violations by business websites has exploded in recent years, from 57 in 2015 to nearly 3,000 in 2018, disability rights lawyer Lainey Feingold told Wired. In 2020, 3,550 such lawsuits were filed, according to a report by UsableNet, a consulting firm for making business websites more accessible.
Retailers are far and away the likeliest target for ADA lawsuits, making up over 77% of defendants in 2020, UsableNet reported. Real estate companies were defendants in 0.3% of ADA digital accessibility lawsuits filed in 2020. Mars Khaimov’s law firm filed 189 digital ADA lawsuits in 2020, the sixth-most of any firm in the country.
“Focusing on the number of lawsuits is harmful for the work that we do,” Rachfal said. “If we focus on the reasons these lawsuits were filed, it’s because businesses’ websites are inaccessible.”
How courts decide on these cases has so far depended on where the courts operate. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers states in the Pacific time zone, Alaska and Hawaii, ruled in favor of the plaintiff in a case against Domino’s Pizza over its online ordering system in 2019. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal, forcing Domino’s to face the claims in a trial.
In April, the 11th Circuit court ruled in favor of Winn-Dixie in a similar lawsuit. The court, which covers Alabama, Georgia and Florida, declared that a website is not a “public place of accommodation” subject to the ADA. The dissenting judges in the case have formally requested an en banc ruling, which is delivered by all of the circuit judges rather than a small portion, as is standard procedure.
CoStar has until May 28 to respond to the suit, according to a summons filed alongside the claim.
Apartments.com is one of the most popular listing sites for multifamily rentals on the internet, outpacing Zillow by 5 million unique page views in the first quarter, and has had over 20% revenue growth for seven straight quarters, CoStar CEO Andy Florance said on the company’s first-quarter earnings call. Florence predicted that Apartments.com would overtake CoStar Suite as the “largest component of our business” by the end of this year.
CoStar has grown to be such a large player in the rental listings space that the Federal Trade Commission sued it last year to block its acquisition of a competitor, RentPath, that had filed for bankruptcy. The ability for the blind to access it is critical as more of the rental market shifts its marketing online, and specifically to Apartments.com.
"When we approach companies, we do so in a way where we bring to them the issues that our members, people in the community are facing," Rachfal said. "And we try to frame it as, ‘These are your potential customers. It would be good customer service to meet them where they are so they can use your site and purchase goods or services from you.’”