February 10, 2020
A legally blind woman in New York has filed a negligence and discrimination suit against Morgan Stanley alleging that its online wealth management websites are largely inaccessible to her, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state’s Human Rights Law.
The complaint, which seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages, was filed on Friday by Georgann Gonoude, a Bronx resident who alleges she has been a client of Morgan Stanley since 2010. She has not been able to make contributions to her investment account or payments on a personal loan since attempting to make online transactions in 2016, according to the filing in federal court in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan.
The case is at least the second filed against Morgan Stanley in the past two years by a lawyer representing visually impaired clients. The first, a purported class-action filed in April 2018 by the leader of a nonprofit organization called My Blind Spot, was dismissed with prejudice in August of that year. The organization campaigns for online accessibility.
The cases, and another purported class-action lawsuit against TD Ameritrade in February 2018, accuse the firms of negligently failing to make online information and services accessible through commercially available screen-reader software.
Gonoude also suffered emotional harm, according to Friday’s filing.
“[S]he had others access the Morgan Websites for the purposes of conducting her personal financial transactions and…doing so made her feel like an incapable, dependent disabled individual, which is exactly what she has promised herself she would not be since she lost her eyesight, causing her emotional distress, anxiety, and pain,” her lawyer, Lambros Lambrou, wrote in the filing.
Lambrou, who also represented My Blind Spot founder Albert Rizzi, was not immediately available to comment, said a person at his New York City office. Unlike the other cases, he is not seeking class-action status in the Gonoude case.
A Morgan Stanley spokeswoman did not immediately respond to queries about the new complaint. When the Rizzi case was filed, the firm declared its commitment to “the fair treatment of our clients with disabilities.”
The February 2018 litigation against TD Ameritrade has been settled. The discount brokerage firm agreed to pay attorneys’, court and expert witness fees and to ensure that “all feasible components of its website are rendered accessible by certain deadlines.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, passed before the omnipresence of websites, has been interpreted in most courts as applying only to obstacles at brick-and-mortar establishments. Gonoude’s filing argues that website accessibility should apply because online services are “directly connected to the various wealth management services” offered by Morgan Stanley and are, therefore, “places of public accommodation” under the law.