Seyfarth Synopsis: Two recent decisions by federal judges to dismiss website accessibility lawsuits may cause more public accommodations to fight instead of settle these suits, but businesses must continue to weigh many factors before making that decision.

The litigation tide might be turning for public accommodations choosing to fight lawsuits brought by blind individuals claiming that the businesses’ websites violate Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not being accessible to them.  As we have previously reported, about a dozen or so plaintiffs’ firms have filed hundreds of lawsuits and sent thousands of demand letters to businesses asserting this type of claim on behalf of blind clients in the past two years.  Most of these matters have settled quickly and confidentially, and the relatively few defendants who chose to litigate rarely had success in getting the cases dismissed.  However, two recent decisions from California and Florida federal judges do provide encouragement for businesses that are willing to spend the money to litigate.

On March 20, 2017, federal District Judge James Otero of the Central District of California dismissed a lawsuit by a blind plaintiff who claimed that he could not order pizza from the Domino’s website because it could not be accessed using his screen reader.  The plaintiff claimed that by having an inaccessible website, Domino’s had violated Title III of the ADA and various California laws that prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities by public accommodations.

Dominos made three arguments as to why the case should be dismissed.  First, websites are not covered by Title III of the ADA.  Second, in the absence of regulations requiring public accommodations to have accessible websites, such entities can choose how they provide access to individuals with disabilities.   Dominos submitted evidence that it provided access for blind individuals through a 24-hour toll-free phone number where live agents would provide assistance with using the website, as well as direct phone access to stores for placing orders.  Third, holding Dominos liable for not having an accessible website would violate due process principles because the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not issued any regulations specifying whether and to what extent websites must be accessible or the legal standard to be applied in determining accessibility.

Judge Otero rejected the argument that the ADA does not cover websites of public accommodations. However, he agreed that Dominos had met its obligations under the law by providing telephonic access, and that requiring Dominos to have an accessible website at this time would violate its constitutional right to due process.  Judge Otero pointed out that neither the law nor the regulations require websites to be accessible, and that the DOJ had failed to issue regulations on this topic after seven years.  As further evidence that covered entities have not been given fair notice of their obligations, he cited the DOJ’s official statements from the beginning of the website rulemaking process that (1) it was considering what legal standard of accessibility to adopt, and (2) telephonic access could be a lawful alternative to having an accessible website.  Based on these due process concerns, Judge Otero invoked the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine which “allows courts to stay proceedings or dismiss a complaint without prejudice pending the resolution of an issue within the special competence of an administrative agency.”  This is the first time a court has dismissed a website accessibility case based on “due process” grounds and a welcome rebuke of the DOJ’s regulatory and enforcement activities to date.

On February 2, 2017, Florida District Judge Joan Lenard dismissed serial plaintiff Andres Gomez’s ADA Title III website lawsuit claim with leave to amend because he had failed to allege that his ability to use the defendant retailer’s website prevented him from accessing its stores.  Judge Lenard held that “[a]ll the ADA requires is that, if a retailer chooses to have a website, the website cannot impede a disabled person’s full use and enjoyment of the brick-and-mortar store.  To survive a motion to dismiss, Plaintiff must claim an actual (not hypothetical) impediment to the use of Defendant’s retail location.”  Gomez had alleged that he could not purchase products online, but did not claim that the website’s inaccessibility impeded his ability to go to a store.  Judge Lenard explicitly rejected the argument that the ADA requires a website to provide the same online-shopping experience as non-disabled persons, stating that “the ADA does not require places of public accommodations to create full-service websites.”

Practical Takeaways.  Here are some takeaways from these recent decisions:

  • All businesses that do not have an accessible website should have a 24/7 toll-free telephone number serviced by live customer service agents who can provide access to all of the information and functions on the website. The phone number should be identified on the website and be accessible using a screen reader.
  • Just because the judges in these cases ruled for the defendants does not mean that all defendants in future website accessibility cases will get the same outcome. These district court decisions are not binding on any other judges who may reach different conclusions.

These decisions do not change the analysis that a defendant must conduct in considering whether to fight or settle a particular case.  Defendants must consider many factors, including (1) the facts (e.g., is access to the goods and services on the website provided through some alternative channel, such as the telephone?), (2) the law in the circuit where the case is pending, (3) the judge, (4) the plaintiff, (5) the plaintiff’s law firm, (6) the cost of settlement, and (7) the cost of litigation.  The fact is that many of these cases can be settled for considerably less than what it would cost to file a motion to dismiss, and it is very difficult for prevailing defendants to recover their fees.  Defendants can only recover fees when the lawsuit was frivolous.

Seyfarth Synopsis: With the recent proliferation of web accessibility demand letters and lawsuits, businesses often ask whether settling a claim with one plaintiff will bar future lawsuits brought by different plaintiffs. One federal judge recently said no.

Plaintiffs Rachel Gniewskowski, R. David New, and Access Now, Inc.—represented by Carlson, Lynch, Kilpela & Sweet—sued retailer Party City in the Western District of Pennsylvania on September 6, 2016, alleging that Party City’s website is not accessible to visually impaired consumers in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  On October 7, 2016 (while the Pennsylvania lawsuit was pending), Party City entered into a confidential settlement agreement with Andres Gomez, who had previously filed a similar lawsuit in Florida.  Both lawsuits contained the same basic set of facts and legal claims, and sought similar relief—modification of the website to make it accessible to, and useable by, individuals with disabilities.

Party City filed a summary judgment motion in the Pennsylvania case, arguing that the Pennsylvania case was barred by the prior settlement under principles of res judicata.  Res judicata applies when three circumstances are present: (1) a final judgment on the merits in a prior suit involving (2) the same parties or their privies, and (3) a subsequent suit based on the same cause of action.  In an order issued on January 27, 2017, the court denied the motion, finding that Party City could not establish the second element.

In its attempt to establish the second element, Party City argued that the Pennsylvania plaintiffs Gniewskowski and New were “adequately represented” in the Florida action by Gomez.  The Court disagreed, finding Gomez did not purport to represent Gniewskowski or New, noting that the “complaint in Gomez’s lawsuit made clear that Gomez brought his lawsuit ‘individually.’” Nor could Party City “point to any ‘procedural protections…in the original action’ that were intended to protect the current plaintiffs’ rights to due process”, such as notice of the prior settlement, or measures the court in the prior litigation took to determine whether the settlement was fair as to absent parties.

The court’s straightforward application of res judicata principles is not surprising, and even less so because there is no indication that Party City had committed to making its website accessible in the confidential settlement agreement—the relief sought in the Pennsylvania case. Public settlement agreements requiring a company to make its website accessible, or a consent decree in which a court orders a company to make its website accessible, are much more likely to deter additional website accessibility lawsuits.  Companies that are under a court order to make their websites accessible have a strong argument that any subsequent ADA Title III suit is moot because the only relief that can be obtained in such a suit—injunctive relief—has already been ordered.  Plaintiffs are also likely to find companies that have made a contractual commitment to making their websites accessible to be less attractive targets because the work may be completed while the second lawsuit is pending, mooting out the claim.  Ultimately, the best deterrence is having a website that is accessible to users with disabilities.  While there is still no legally-prescribed standard for accessibility (nor, with the present Administration’s actions toward regulations does it appear likely one will issue anytime soon), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, 2.0 Levels A and AA are widely used in the industry as the de facto standard.

Seyfarth Synopsis: New website and mobile app accessibility settlement agreement requires WCAG 2.0 AA conformance, training, and feedback mechanism.

Being named one of the most innovative companies of 2016 doesn’t make one immune from a website and mobile app accessibility lawsuit.  Capping 2016’s banner accessibility lawsuit count, including record website accessibility lawsuit numbers, on which we reported yesterday, was an end-of-the-year settlement between innovative local-sourcing salad restaurant Sweetgreen, Inc. and two blind individuals, on behalf of other similarly-situated individuals.

The settlement concluded a lawsuit filed on March 2, 2016 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, which alleged that Sweetgreen discriminated against the plaintiffs due to an online ordering portal and mobile app that were not accessible in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.

Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that Sweetgreen’s online and mobile app ordering systems allowed customers to “customize signature salads, filter by dietary preferences, track calories and more,” but that barriers to accessibility on the online ordering portal and mobile app prohibited them from independently placing salad orders online for pick-up.

The settlement agreement requires:

  • Improving accessibility to both the online ordering portal and mobile app (excluding third party content except as integral to an online transaction function) to conform to, at minimum, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level A and AA Success Criteria by March 31, 2017, and maintaining that conformance;
  • A link on Sweetgreen’s contact page that provides visitors the opportunity to provide feedback regarding accessibility;
  • Attempt to remedy accessibility issues raised through the feedback page within 30 days of receipt; and
  • For a period of two years, web accessibility training to employees who write or develop programs or code for http://order.sweetgreen.com, and its mobile applications, or who publish final content to http://order.sweetgreen.com, and its mobile applications.

These are common settlement terms; signaling they are also good proactive steps for companies to take in their own web and mobile app accessibility efforts.  And for those companies frustrated with the proliferation of ADA lawsuits and demand letters, some solace in knowing they’re not the only ones grappling with this issue.

Notably, one of the plaintiffs, Mika Pyyhkala, was a plaintiff (in addition to the National Federation of the Blind) in the landmark web accessibility H&R Block lawsuit and consent decree.  Advocacy group Washington Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights And Urban Affairs represented Pyyhkala in the Sweetgreen lawsuit.

Edited by Minh Vu.