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  1. Hernando

Hernando County set to settle website accessibility lawsuit, one in a wave filed by prolific plaintiffs

A legally blind Daytona Beach man has filed similar suits against more than two dozen public entities in Florida.
Published Feb. 19

On New Year's Eve, Hernando County joined the company of dozens of other Florida public entities when it was sued by a Daytona Beach man who said the county's website didn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Now, after a county commission agreement last week, Hernando is set to be among those who have paid the man.

It's one piece in what legal experts have called a growing wave of website accessibility lawsuits against municipalities.

The Hernando settlement hadn't been finalized earlier this week, so details weren't available. But earlier this month, the Flagler County Commission approved a nearly $16,000 settlement in a similar case involving the same plaintiff, Joel Price. Price was set to receive $1,200 and his attorneys $14,500.

Price, who is a legally blind Navy veteran, according to the lawsuit, has filed similar accessibility suits against more than two dozen Florida municipalities, according to public records. Several of the suits contained strikingly similar lines referring to Price as "an active and social Florida resident" with an interest in what would make each county "a viable visiting and living option."

According to the Hernando County lawsuit, the trouble started when Price perused the county website in September. He found that some documents on the website, including information about public transit for people with disabilities, couldn't be read by his screen-reading software. Price sent a letter to then-County Administrator Leonard Sossamon, asking that the website's pages be made accessible.

About a month later, county spokeswoman Virginia Singer sent Price a letter saying that the county was working to comply with accessibility guidelines. She offered to provide the documents to Price in another format. Two months later, Price filed his lawsuit.

Price's lack of access to the information caused him to feel "segregation, rejection, and isolation," according to the lawsuit. It does not specify what damages Price and his attorneys are seeking.

The county commissioners knew about Price's history of similar lawsuits and weren't happy to be on his list, said Commissioner Steve Champion. He couldn't discuss details of the proposed settlement, but said he believed the lawsuit was all about money.

"It leaves a bad taste in all our mouths," Champion said. "There's dollars and cents, and then there's litigation there as well."

Singer said the county could not comment on ongoing litigation, and neither Deputy County Administrator Jeff Rogers nor County Attorney Garth Coller responded to requests for comment.

Earlier this year, a judge granted a stay in a similar suit filed by Price against Pasco County, halting the case through mid-March.

Neither Price nor his lawyer, Miami-based attorney Scott Dinin, responded to requests for comment.

Orlando-based attorney Michael J. Roper, who isn't involved in the Hernando County suit but has represented local governments in similar suits, said he's seen a substantial increase in website accessibility litigation over the past year. People with disabilities have been suing private businesses over web accessibility since at least 2009, he said, but he's not sure what's behind the latest wave of suits against public entities, many of them filed by a small number of plaintiffs.

"It's a complicated issue, because obviously it's the case that folks with disabilities should be able to have equal access to information," he said. "However, these things all come at a cost. It takes some time to get them brought up to compliance."

These suits could make local governments reevaluate their budgets, Roper said, as they consider hiring new employees or consultants to update and maintain web accessibility. They also may need to buy equipment for features such as closed captioning, he said, and counties and cities that have let their web infrastructure stagnate over 10 or 15 years may have to rebuild their sites all together.

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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