Who Enforces the ADA? It Depends

Published August 31, 2020

There is a common misconception that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an all-encompassing office that anyone who is facing a violation can call to resolve an issue. In fact, regulation of the ADA’s provisions is apportioned across a number of different federal and even state agencies in some cases.

With the notable exception of legal action taken against religious organizations, the ADA allows for private lawsuits to be filed once complaints have been brought forward to the relevant federal agencies. However, who pursues a complaint and which federal agencies get involved depends on the nature of the complaint.

In most cases of workplace discrimination, charges would be filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Depending on the circumstance, agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Interior may also get involved.

If your state has a work-sharing agreement with the EEOC, you may choose to file a charge at the state level. It doesn’t really matter, since charges filed with either agency are automatically also filed with the other so that complainants are protected at both the state and federal levels.

In some cases, other federal agencies have jurisdiction. For example, suppose you are hearing impaired and your telephone provider is not delivering the telecommunication relay services that are required by law. That provision, enshrined in Title IV of the legislation, falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission. To register a complaint, you would contact either an entity in your state or the FCC’s Disability Rights Office. The Department of Justice’s Civil Right Division, also has an online form that can be used.

In many cases, federal agencies are tasked with working together to ensure compliance with the ADA. For example, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Justice’s civil rights office signed a memorandum of understanding in 2005 that lays out how the two agencies are meant to work together, including how complaints and enforcement are to be handled when it comes to access to public transportation for those with disabilities. Schools and universities fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Education.

The ADA National Disability Law Handbook is a good place to find more information about how ADA compliance and enforcement works. The Department of Labor has a breakdown of which federal agencies are responsible for regulation and enforcement.

It’s a good idea to research cases that have already been resolved to look for similarities to yours. The Department of Health and Human Services has a listing of notable actions taken by its staff and the Department of Justice maintains a similar web page. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has a publicly available resolution database where several thousand cases are listed from 2013 to the present. That equates to 611 yearly cases of ADA non-compliance that made it to that stage of enforcement across the US.

ADA-related lawsuits have been increasing for year. The law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP said there were 11,053 Title III (public accommodation) lawsuits in 2019, compared to just 2,722 when their analysis started in 2013. The volume has grown every year.

It is important to note that the ADA is just the starting point when it comes to disability rights legislation in the United States. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (signed into law in the 1970s) is often cited in decisions made by the Department of Education. The Fair Housing Act, Air Carrier Access Act, and Telecommunications Act also have their own provisions for access. More information on disability provisions in those pieces of legislation is available at the Department of Justice’s Guide to Disability Rights Laws.

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