Court Says Website Access Case for Deaf May Proceed

In a case of first impression and a major vindication for disability rights, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit Court has ruled that deaf and hard of hearing people are not required to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) before they can sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act for a denial of web access.

The case before the Appeals Court was Eddie Sierra v. City of Hallandale Beach, Florida. Sierra is deaf and a disability rights advocate.  He requested that the City of Hallandale Beach provide captioning for certain video content on its website.  Sierra was interested in viewing some historical Hallandale Beach City Commission meetings but could not do so because the videos were not captioned.  When Hallandale Beach refused to honor his request, Sierra sued in federal court for violating his rights under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

The City of Hallandale Beach filed a motion to dismiss Sierra’s complaint because Sierra had not yet filed a complaint with the FCC under the Twenty First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA).  A federal district court in Miami granted the motion to dismiss, meaning that Sierra could refile his lawsuit after he completed the complaint process at the FCC.

In his appeal, Sierra claimed the CVAA did not require him to file a complaint with the FCC before he could sue under other federal civil rights laws.  Sierra also argued that the FCC did not have specialized knowledge regarding closed captioning which required the courts to defer to the FCC.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Sierra arguments and vacated the lower court ruling and remanded the case back to the district holding that the CVAA gave the FCC exclusive jurisdiction over matters arising under the CVAA.

Courtney Cunningham, a Miami-based attorney who represented Sierra in the both the lower court and the appellate court, said the Sierra decision was a reaffirmation of the rights Congress granted people with disabilities under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. “We cannot thank the NAD and Stein & Vargas, LLP enough representing Mr. Sierra in this appeal. The appeals court decision is a victory for Mr. Sierra and all deaf and hard of hearing people who advocate for web access,” said Cunningham.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and the law office of Stein & Vargas, LLP also represented Sierra in the appeal. “The CVAA was being misinterpreted and we could not let this ruling go unchallenged,” NAD Chief Executive Officer Howard A. Rosenblum said. “A ruling that required deaf and hard of hearing people to first file a complaint with the FCC, before they could assert their rights in federal court, was a dangerous precedent that could have spread throughout the federal courts throughout the U.S.”


Courtney Cunningham, PLLC is a civil rights law firm based in Miami, Florida.

National Association of the Deaf, established in 1880, is the nation’s premier organization safeguarding the civil, human and linguistics rights of deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the U.S.

Stein & Vargas is a Washington, D.C. based disability rights law firm.