Morgan Stanley Sued for $9 Million by Blind Man Claiming Inaccessible Websites
(Updates with comment from Morgan Stanley in sixth paragraph.)
A legally blind man in New York has sued Morgan Stanley for negligence, alleging that its online wealth management services are largely inaccessible in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state’s Human Rights Law.
The complaint, which seeks $9 million in damages, was filed in U.S. Eastern District Court in Brooklyn on Thursday by Albert Rizzi, founder of a 501c(3) nonprofit organization called My Blind Spot. The organization seeks to “promote awareness among leaders in business, education and government about the critical importance of making their digital content, software and technologies accessible and usable to the disability community,” according to its website.
The lawsuit is at least the second this year alleging discrimination by a brokerage firm for negligently failing to make its online information and services accessible through commercially available screen reader software used by the blind. An upstate New York woman filed a class-action lawsuit in February against TD Ameritrade over her inability to access online information and trading software on its websites.
Rizzi, a former marketer who shifted careers to run a preschool program in the South Bronx, was diagnosed in January 2006 with fungal meningitis that attacked his optic nerve and left him “completely blind,” according to his organization’s website. He began the organization after winning a “substantial” malpractice award related to the onset of his disability, said Lambros Lambrou, a New York City lawyer who filed the Morgan Stanley case.
“He has several substantial accounts with Morgan Stanley and he has complained to them for a long time about not having access equal to people with vision,” Lambrou said of his client. “His complaints were very specific and he told them he could help them fix the issues free of charge but they basically blew him off.”
“Morgan Stanley is committed to the fair treatment of our clients with disabilities,” a company spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail. “We have not been served with the complaint and cannot comment at this time.”
The complaint alleges that Rizzo cannot integrate his screen reader software to make the firm’s relevant websites comprehensible. It also alleges that the firm does not have policies to help disabled users work with it on addressing programming errors and other easily correctable issues and potential workarounds.
“This is a big problem for banks now,” said Lambrou, noting that he has reached settlements with other banks and financial institutions on the issue. He declined to identify the institutions, citing terms of the settlement.
The Americans for Disability Act was passed before the omnipresence of websites, and has been interpreted in most courts as applying only to obstacles to brick-and-mortar establishments. However, federal courts in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Vermont in recent years have ruled that financial firms’ websites are “sales establishments” that qualify as “public accommodations” under the disabilities law, Lambrou said.
My Blind Spot is funded by fees for digital accessibility services, contributions and fees for speaking engagements, according to its website. It lists American Airlines, Intuit, Toyota, Canon, Carnival cruise lines and the Stop&Shop supermarket chain as “clients.”