The Justice Department
has announced that it will intervene in a private lawsuit filed against national tax preparation firm H&R Block, saying its website does not allow sufficient access for people with disabilities.
The department's motion, filed Nov. 25 against Block subsidiaries HRB Digital and HRB Tax Group, says the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which the Justice Department has ruled applies to websites.
The Justice Department, in making its motion to intervene in the case, says the website "prevents some people with disabilities from completing even the most basic activities on the site."
"The United States demands that H&R Block is fined a penalty to 'vindicate the public interest' and to award money to the individuals who sued the company. The ADA prohibits discrimination of disability by public accommodations in the 'full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations,'" the Justice Department said in joining the lawsuit.
The initial suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts in April on behalf of two blind state residents and the National Federation of the Blind. It noted that H&R Block prepares one of every six U.S. tax returns, claiming to be "the only tax preparation company capable of serving clients anyway, anywhere, and anyhow they want to be served."
Typically, the blind use software programs that convert screen verbiage into spoken words or, in some cases, Braille. The two plaintiffs in the case, Mika Pyyhkala and Lindsay Yazzolino, tried to complete their 2012 tax returns on the H&R Block website but were unable to do so. They have sought class-action status in the case.
"Defendants have failed to ensure that [the website] permits accurate and effective communication of the website's information using, among others, screen-reader software programs, refreshable Braille displays, captioning, and keyboard navigation," the DOJ's complaint reads.
The department is seeking a court order in its proposed complaint that makes sure H&R Block's website provides equal accessibility. It is also seeking monetary damages, noting that by joining the suit, the DOJ "directly implicates the United States' obligation to enforce the ADA and its interest in ending disability discrimination."
Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the NFB, said in announcing the lawsuit: "As millions of Americans rush to prepare and file their taxes online using H&R Block's popular websites, blind people are unable to do so because the company has refused to make its website accessible to us. For most blind people, this means that they must obtain assistance filing their tax returns rather than having the option to do so privately and independently."
"The laws of the United States and the state of Massachusetts require, and blind Americans demand, that H&R Block make all of its online services accessible to blind taxpayers," said Maurer.
Julia Campins of the San Francisco law firm Campins Benham-Baker, LLP, said the lawsuit and intervention by the DOJ puts companies on notice that they must be more aware of ADA laws. She noted that there are new and "exciting" technological tools to assist those with disabilities online, and companies should take advantage of those to help members of society who need them.
"I absolutely think the impact of this litigation has the possibility of changing the landscape, beyond the confines of just this lawsuit," Campins told Newsmax. "I think some companies are not paying attention to these issues. If they see a lawsuit, I think they might have the realization that they must pay attention as well."
Positive change has occurred in this arena without legal intervention, Campins said.
"There is a lot of movement in this online accessibility area. I think we are moving forward," she said. "I think there are a lot of companies that are paying attention, but my understanding from dealing with people who face these issues is we still have a long way to go."
A previous class-action lawsuit over web accessibility, the NFB v. Target, resulted in a $6 million settlement.
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