March 17, 2010, 12:00 AM

A lawsuit alleges eBay violates disabilities laws

A deaf woman who claims that eBay’s seller telephone verification process has prevented her from selling items on the site filed suit against eBay, claiming the company violates laws that protect disabled people against discrimination.

A deaf woman in Missouri who claims that eBay’s seller telephone verification process has prevented her from selling items on the online marketplace filed suit this week against eBay, claiming the site violates federal and California state laws that protect disabled people against discrimination.

The plaintiff, Melissa Earll, says that as a "profoundly deaf" person she was unable to register with eBay because the company verifies sellers’ identities through telephone calls, according to a complaint filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court in the western district of Missouri. Earll is seeking class-action status.

Earll claims to have asked eBay in e-mails and online chats for an alternative to phone verification from June to August 2008. She then tried again last December. In each exchange she received messages such as one chat reply provided to that read: “The system is designed to send the PIN through a phone call, I’m sorry but we will not be able to use a different method.” Another time she was told to seek the assistance of a hearing person, says Michael Aschenbrener, Earll’s attorney.

“Her goal is simple-to be a seller on eBay,” he says.

The suit argues that eBay’s marketplace, as a “place of public accommodation,” violates the Americans with Disabilities Act since the act does not limit places of public accommodation to bricks-and-mortar companies or preclude Internet-based businesses. The suit makes similar arguments with California’s Disabled Persons Act.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would prohibit eBay from violating both the federal and state laws, as well as a requirement that eBay create a registration system for people with hearing problems. The suit also seeks unspecified damages.

EBay, in a statement, says that it believes its policies are "consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act and related laws." The company adds that it "strives to equally serve all of our users in an appropriate, lawful and responsible manner."

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