illustration of various web accessibility, law, and California state icons surrounding a web accessibility icon

Web Provider Pays $2M for WCAG Compliance Failure

David Gibson

First note, the California Parks & Recreation Department was not sued. The 2 companies that built their website got sued, and were forced to settle for $2M.

In 2017 the California Department of Department of Parks and Recreation launched the website which promised universal access to online camping reservations at California State Parks. The state awarded the project to government contractors Conduent State & Local Solutions, Inc. and US eDirect for a whopping $66M! Although the website companies claimed the site was WCAG 2.0 A, AA compliant, it wasn’t. California resident Bryan Bashin, an avid camping enthusiast and accessibility advocate with vision loss, took action. With the assistance of the law firms of Relman Colfax PLLC and TRE Legal Practice, they sued (link to lawsuit), and on Dec 1, 2023, Judge Evelio Grillo of the Alameda County (CA) Superior Court gave final approval to a settlement of Bryan Bashin v Conduent State & Local Solutions, Inc., and US eDirect, Inc. valued at more than $2 million.

Needless to say this decision provides a new level of accountability of government contractors that develop websites, mobile apps, SaaS and digital content. This precedent opens considerable new liability that will reach beyond California’s borders for government contractors across the country. It also signals to commercial web designers - especially those that claim to be accessibility website developers or ADA compliant web designers to be careful to be very careful about what you contract and what you deliver. 

California State Parks Digital Accessibility Case Background

You may first be wondering how a private citizen was able to sue a government contractor over breach of a contract that he was not a party to. After all, the contract was between the contractor and the State - not Mr. Bashin. Turns out the firm of Relman Colfax has some experience in this department, and used what is called a qui tam action, which is a unique provision in the California False Claim Act which enabled Mr. Bashin to act as a whistleblower and file a lawsuit on behalf of the State of California. So he did.

But Bashin team didn’t stop there. They cited additional violations of 4 laws:

  • Unruh Civil Rights Act: The lawsuit argued that the website's inaccessibility violated Bashin's civil rights, as it denied him equal access to a public service.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: These federal regulations require WCAG compliance under the ADA and government entities receiving federal funding under 508. 
  • California False Claims Act (CFCA): This landmark aspect of the case alleged that Conduent and US eDirect knowingly misrepresented the website's accessibility to secure government funding, constituting fraud under the CFCA. This qui tam action empowered Bashin to sue on behalf of the state government, regardless of his individual contractual relationship with the defendants.

Landmark California Supreme Court Decision Expands the Scope of Web Accessibility Law

Yes. That may border on hyperbole, but the court's decision in favor of Bashin marks a fairly significant point. It expands the scope of legal responsibility for web accessibility compliance by establishing a precedent for holding government contractors liable, even without a direct contractual relationship with the individual filing the lawsuit. That alone is big. That means that any one of thousands of Californians barred from access to any city or state funded - any publicly funded website that is not accessible will have a new level of scrutiny. Did the contractor claim the site would be WCAG compliant? 

It should also serve as a warning to all commercial web design agencies that build websites. Web accessibility is a civil right that ensures that all US citizens have the right to equal enjoyment and equal access to not only physical spaces, but digital spaces as well. 

Summary: WCAG Accessibility Best Practices for Web Designers

The Bashin case serves as a wake-up call for all web design firms, especially those working with government agencies, and claiming to specialize in digital accessibility and building WCAG compliant websites. To avoid legal repercussions and ethical concerns, prioritizing accessible web design from the outset is crucial. Here are some key best practices:

  • Regular Audits: Conduct regular audits by qualified accessibility professionals, utilizing manual testing and assistive technology testing with screen readers and other devices  to thoroughly identify and remediate accessibility barriers.
  • WCAG Guidelines Adherence: Adhere to the internationally recognized WCAG guidelines for building accessible websites. The newest standard is WCAG 2.2, but the legal bar is 2.1. This ensures compliance and inclusive design, making websites usable by everyone, regardless of ability.
  • Universal Accessibility: Go beyond visual impairments and prioritize universal accessibility for a diverse range of disabilities.
  • Integrated Development: Integrate accessibility considerations into the entire development process, not just as an afterthought. This ensures that accessibility is seamlessly woven into the fabric of the website, not treated as a separate task.

It should also be a reminder to companies that outsource their web design to web development agencies. Don’t search for any web design company, literally search for “WCAG compliant website companies” or “ADA compliant web design firms”. And beware of any that only use automated WCAG testing for web accessibility, or worse, any that would use an overlay plugin, widget, or toolbar. Always ask what methods they use to ensure compliance, and listen for those that use qualified human WCAG testers. 

Wrap Up

The Bashin case is a big step toward an inclusive digital future. This landmark decision, propelled by a this special qui tam action of the California False Claims Act, has empowered individuals, highlighted the legal ramifications of non-compliance for government contractors and web developers, and underscored the critical role of accessible web design and WCAG compliant websites in ensuring equal access for all. It serves as a catalyst for positive change, paving the way for a world where everyone can access and embrace the limitless possibilities of the digital age.

In the aftermath of this landmark decision, web developers and government agencies alike must take accountability for ensuring the accessibility of their digital platforms. By embracing best practices, prioritizing inclusivity, and recognizing the moral imperative of accessible web design, we can create a digital landscape that truly welcomes everyone.