As ‘Serial Plaintiffs’ Target Art Gallery Websites for Disability Act Violations, Some Dealers Are Settling—or Scrambling to Get Up to Code

More than 100 lawsuits have been filed against New York City galleries in recent times.

Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images.

Several New York City art galleries have paid to settle lawsuits brought against them for allegedly violating the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act because their websites were not fully accessible to hearing or visually impaired persons.

The galleries that settled the suits, including Howard Rehs, Mark Borghi Fine Art, Questroyal Fine Art. and around a half-dozen others, are bound by non-disclosure agreements, but artnet News has learned that the cost averaged about $15,000 per settlement and they’ve agreed to update their websites’ accessibility. (The cost of continuing litigation and proceeding to trial is estimated at upwards of $100,000, experts say.)

“Dealers are not experienced with litigation,” attorney Joseph DiPalma, who is representing several galleries, told artnet News.  “When you consider it from a business perspective, it makes sense.”

In late January, a single plaintiff, identified as Deshawn Dawson, a legally blind person living in Brooklyn, filed at least 37 lawsuits against a range of New York dealers of fine art, rare books, and antiquities dealers. The complaint sought class-action status, a jury trial, and to change the business’ “corporate policies, practices, and procedures so that defendant’s website will become and remain accessible to blind and visually impaired consumers.”

Another plaintiff, Henry Tucker, also filed more than 80 similarly worded lawsuits this past November, including against some New York galleries. Both Tucker and Dawson are represented by the same attorneys, Joseph Mizrahi and Jeffrey Gottlieb, who have not responded to requests for comment.

Art galleries were just the latest business sector to be targeted with a wave of similar disability lawsuits. Thousands of other businesses, including hotels, resorts, universities, and restaurants were served with similar complaints about their websites last year.

“Technology has changed, that’s why we’re dealing with this,” says Frank Imburgio, founder and president of the website development firm Desktop Solutions. “The state of speech recognition and speech synthesis that’s in everyone’s Alexa? That same piece of software embedded in your browser means blind people can avail themselves of your website, but the websites were not designed with that in mind” five or ten years ago.

Imburgio’s firm has been working with galleries whose websites have been targeted by similar lawsuits and those seeking proactive measures to meet compliance standards. Costs range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, depending on the size of the website, he says.

Another problem for galleries is that there are no clear guidelines from Congress or the Department of Justice on how the ADA applies to the Internet. Lawsuits have increased 31 percent in the first quarter of 2019 compared to the same quarter last year. And retailers often find themselves in the cross-hairs, making up 60 percent of all claims.

Last March the Albany-based Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York published a report titled “Serial Plaintiffs: The Abuse of Title III” looking at how attorneys “exploit a law with good intentions.” According to the report, small and independently owned businesses are particularly vulnerable to these predatory attorneys since they have less to spend on compliance or legal costs. Lawsuits are typically filed just so they can be settled and plaintiffs recoup only a small amount, according to the report. “Typically, plaintiffs collect $500 per suit, while the lawyers average $16,000 per suit in legal fees,” it says. California and New York were found to be especially vulnerable to lawsuits because of their state laws, though there has been some legislative pushback recently.

A spokesperson for Congressman J. Luis Correa of California told artnet News in January, when these latest lawsuits were filed, that Correa “has been working on this issue for a few years now, however, we were unaware that this had spread into the art world as well.”

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