One woman’s quest for plastic surgery ended in 16 lawsuits across California, including several South Bay clinics, for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Megan Erasmus, who lives in Seattle, said she couldn’t access the businesses’ online videos because some didn’t have closed captions. That’s a problem for Erasmus, as she’s part of the deaf community.
The internet is moving toward video-centered engagement, said David Price, an attorney at the law firm Erasmus hired, which means the deaf community can be left out when content lacks captions.
“Megan didn’t seem to really have the same issues before, but the rise of YouTube and TikTok—everything’s all video all the time. She wants to be able to see the same websites that you and I see basically,” Price told San José Spotlight.
In April and May, Erasmus’ attorneys at the San Diego-based Center for Disability Access filed 16 identical lawsuits against a variety of plastic surgery clinics and practices across Santa Clara County.
Five businesses hit with litigation in Palo Alto, Los Gatos and San Jose are mulling over resolutions as Erasmus and her team seek $4,000 for each accessibility violation they can prove.
Issabella Shields Grantham, marketing director at L&P Aesthetics in Palo Alto, said they received a court summons in the mail after Erasmus filed suit against them on May 5.
She said defense attorneys soon began calling to pitch their services, aware that the facial plastic surgery clinic had just been sued for an alleged ADA violation.
“The video that they alleged did not have closed captions was one out of our collection of 200-plus videos,” Grantham told San José Spotlight. “I understand people living with disabilities need to have access to the same content everyone else does. In this case, the alleged video was very bland, really just the name of the practice and what we do—which we have written other places on our website.”
Erasmus, a mental health therapist working at the Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services in Seattle, already settled one case last week against SkinSpirit, a skin care clinic with locations in Los Gatos and Palo Alto.
Though Price said he couldn’t discuss the terms of the settlement, he said similar cases can end with as low as $1,000 per violation. He said they seldom do they rise to more than $10,000, usually only when businesses choose to go to trial.
Unrelated ADA lawsuits have financially devastated San Jose businesses in the past.
In 2020, June Tran, owner of Crema Coffee in San Jose, told San José Spotlight a drawn out and costly legal battle over ADA compliance forced her to close her location in The Alameda neighborhood after 13 years running. She consolidated into her other nearby coffee shop with the same name.
The landmark disability law act passed in 1990 requires businesses and employers to provide greater accessibility to people living with disabilities.
Even as the pandemic slowed down the number of compliance claims in 2020, the year still saw 10,928 ADA lawsuits across the country—the second highest yearly rate since the bill’s passage.
Price said the idea that such lawsuits could bankrupt businesses is a misunderstanding.
“It’s the six-figure bills they’re getting from their defense counsel who promised they can teach the plaintiff a lesson, or get vindicated—but it turns out they’re getting taken to the cleaners by unethical defense counsel,” he said. “Even the most rock solid case types lose at trial, but realistically speaking, nobody wins when that happens. It just ends up being expensive for both parties.”
All 16 lawsuits shared the same nine-page text word-for-word, aside from the clinic names and one sentence describing reasons Erasmus visited the websites.
“Plaintiff specifically was looking for information about the clinic and their services,” reads the litigation filed against Illuminate Plastic Surgery, which has a clinic in San Jose.
L&P Aesthetics is speaking with an attorney to discuss a response to the allegations made against them, Grantham said.
“Historically, most of our clients have had physical disabilities, (but) more recently, the internet’s become even a bigger part of our lives,” Price said. “So as a result we started representing a lot more people with visual and hearing disabilities.”
Lynne Kinsey, president of the Hearing Loss Association of America Silicon Valley chapter, said most of her meetings have been over Zoom since the pandemic began—but the captions aren’t always accurate, if they’re even present at all. Government agencies have long struggled with this.
She found herself having to show colleagues and public officials how to set up transcription services for their video feeds.
“Or eventually I just have to give up, but I’ve had other people thank me in the chat for enabling the captions because it’s helped them also,” Kinsey said. “They’re using live transcriptions a lot now for my religious services, and they could be brought to several city meetings and discussions.”
Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.