In a crucial decision upholding equal access to the Internet, on November 5, 2019, a state court in Alameda County validated the legal bases underlying a fraud whistleblower complaint against Conduent, Inc. and Conduent State & Local Solutions for developing a public website that is inaccessible to people with disabilities.
The website, ReserveCalifornia.com, is the portal that controls access to reservations to campsites, cabins, tours, and other activities in all 300 California state parks overseen by the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR).
The Plaintiff, Bryan Bashin, is a blind camping enthusiast who relies on a screen reader to navigate the Internet. Since the launch of the new park-booking website on August 1, 2017, he, like hundreds of thousands of other blind users, has been effectively shut out of the most desirable state park opportunities.
Mr. Bashin uncovered evidence that Conduent State & Local Solutions, Inc., the private contractor that had been awarded the $66 million DPR contract to design, launch and maintain DPR’s website, had repeatedly misled DPR that the website would comply with the rigorous accessibility standards required under the contract and existing law. He shared that evidence with California authorities before he filed suit — under the California False Claims Act (CFCA) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act — to vindicate the rights of blind Californians to access state agency websites, which increasingly function as the primary portals to important state programs and benefits.
First, in rejecting the defendants’ request to dismiss the suit, Judge Brad Seligman ruled that Plaintiff Bryan Bashin, acting on behalf of the State of California, had articulated sufficient factual details to support the knowing fraud.
Second, Judge Seligman ruled that California’s Unruh Act, which prohibits a wide variety of discriminatory conduct, prohibited the alleged harms suffered by Mr. Bashin when he encountered the unusable website. Relatedly, the judge permitted claims to proceed against the defendants for interfering with Mr. Bashin’s rights under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act to access the benefits provided by California’s Department of Parks and Recreation through their inaccessible website. As the court wrote, “Here the interference alleged is manifest — the very website that is the portal to access to the public benefit, is unavailable to persons with disabilities.” This ruling is one of the first decisions in California state courts to address such an interference claim.
While pleased with this early victory, Mr. Bashin, and his attorneys at TRE Legal Practice and Relman, Dane & Colfax, recognize that the site continues to be inaccessible to disabled Californians, and will continue to seek to force Conduent to fix the access barriers that it created in the website and to repay all public funds secured through fraud and false assurances. The case will now proceed through discovery to a trial on the underlying claims.
For more, read the first press release about the case: Fraud Whistleblower Seeks Redress for Inaccessible Public Website that Cost California $66 Million.