When It Comes to ADA Litigation, Industry Could Win Legal Battle But Lose PR War

January 4, 2019 at 8:56 am Leave a comment

The Federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit handed a victory to credit unions yesterday when it ruled that a blind individual could not sue a credit union he could not join for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In Griffin v. Department of Labor Federal Credit Union, the Appellate Court heard an appeal from a blind plaintiff who wanted to sue the credit union on the grounds that its website was inaccessible to visually impaired individuals such as himself. In order to proceed in any lawsuit, a plaintiff has to prove that they have been harmed by an illegal action. The Appellate Court ruled that because the credit union is only open to members with a relationship to the Federal Department of Labor, the defendant could not prove he was being harmed by their website.

“The legal barriers between Griffin and the Credit Union render his injury “abstract”… Here, a neutral proposition of federal law makes it impossible for Griffin to interact directly with the Credit Union. The Federal Credit Union Act of 1934 expressly forbids the provision of any products or services to him. 12 U.S.C. § 1759. It is therefore impossible—absent a violation of federal law—for Griffin to be “personally subject” to the dignitary harms allegedly occasioned by the Credit Union’s website.”

The Court also rejected the argument, commonly used the other civil rights litigation, that the inaccessible website deprived disabled individuals of the dignity of equal treatment that they are entitled to. A majority of the court rejected this argument because Griffin was being denied access not because he was disabled but because the Federal Credit Union Act makes him ineligible for membership in the credit union.

The Court’s decision, while not binding on jurisdictions outside of the 4th Circuit, is likely to carry significant persuasive authority as it is the first federal appellate level decision dealing with the precise issue of the ADA’s applicability to credit union websites.

While the decision is a welcomed one, let’s keep in mind what the decision does not do. Most importantly, it does not stand for the proposition that the ADA does not apply to websites. As such, to the extent that your credit union has still not found the time or resources to make its website more accessible, you are still vulnerable to a lawsuit from a disabled individual within your credit union’s field of membership.

Now for some personal commentary. Sometimes you can win the battle but lose the PR war and if the industry isn’t careful, that will be the result of this litigation. After all, at the same time that the industry is correctly advocating for expanding field of membership flexibility it is also using that lack of flexibility as a shield against ensuring that all individuals can review the services offered by credit unions.

Here is my ultimate question: Should an industry dedicated to making sure that all people can access financial services really be leading the way in limiting the obligation of financial institutions to helping disabled individuals access financial services? And remember, this isn’t just about the ADA. It’s about the services your aging members are going to expect from you in return for their money.



Entry filed under: Legal Watch. Tags: , , .

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Authored By:

Henry Meier, Esq., Senior Vice President, General Counsel, New York Credit Union Association.

The views Henry expresses are Henry’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Association. In addition, although Henry strives to give his readers useful and accurate information on a broad range of subjects, many of which involve legal disputes, his views are not a substitute for legal advise from retained counsel.

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