Seyfarth Synopsis: In amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department agreed with the Fifth Circuit and defendant Coca-Cola that a vending machine is not a place of public accommodation and that public accommodations can comply with the ADA by providing assistance to customers in lieu of having accessible self-service equipment.

The Supreme Court recently asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to weigh in on whether vending machines are places of public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA.  The Court’s request related to a pending a Petition for Certiorari filed by a blind plaintiff who unsuccessfully sued Coca-Cola for allegedly owning and/or operating vending machines that are not independently usable by the blind.  Both the District Court and the Fifth Circuit had concluded that such machines are not public accommodations under the ADA.

The DOJ’s amicus brief unequivocally stated its position that vending machines are not public accommodations.  The DOJ advanced a number of arguments in support of its position that a vending machine does not fall within any of the 12 categories of businesses that are considered public accommodations under the statute.  Among other things, the DOJ stated that a vending machine is not a “sales establishment” covered by the law but rather a piece of equipment typically found within public accommodations facilities.

The most significant commentary from the DOJ’s brief concerns a public accommodation’s obligations with regard to self-service equipment provided for public use.  The DOJ stated:

the operator of a public accommodation in which the vending machines is located is better suited to determine whether such changes [(i.e. making the vending machines independently accessible by blind users)] are the most efficient means of complying with the ADA.  When buying or leasing vending machines, some business owners may insist upon the inclusion of accessible features.  Others, however, might choose instead to install the machines at locations within their establishments where their employees will be available to assist customers with disabilities.  The business owner is better positioned than the seller or lessor of the machines to determine what method of ensuring accessibility will be most effective at a particular location.

In other words, it is the DOJ’s position that providing assistance to customers with disabilities is a lawful way to provide access in lieu of procuring accessible vending machines.  Presumably this position would extend to all self-service equipment provided for customer use — at least when there are no privacy concerns.  (In 2014, the DOJ had filed a Statement of Interest in a different case involving allegedly inaccessible point-of-sale devices where it took the position that a public accommodation must provide individuals with disabilities independent access to point-of-sale devices which require the entry of Personal Identification Numbers (PINs).)

Also significant was DOJ’s view that the Supreme Court should not grant review of the case in order to address the question of whether online-only businesses are covered by Title III of the ADA.  The DOJ noted that while “questions concerning Title III’s application to non-physical establishments – including websites or digital services – may someday warrant” the Supreme Court’s attention, this case was not the time or place to do so since the plaintiff here encountered the machines in person, not via telephone or internet.  The DOJ’s suggestion that the Court should defer on this issue suggests that the Department may be evaluating its prior position that online-only businesses are covered by the ADA.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Utah businesses are experiencing an unprecedented number of ADA Title III lawsuits.

Utah used to be a good place for public accommodations that did not want to be sued for ADA Title III violations.  In 2013, 2014, and 2015 combined, plaintiffs only filed a total of eight such lawsuits in federal court (1, 6, and 1, respectively).  In 2016, the number surged to 124, making Utah the seventh most busy federal venue for such filings for that year.  In just the first five months of 2017, plaintiffs have filed 125 lawsuits in the Utah federal courts, the highest number since we started tracking them in 2013.

Federal ADA Title III Lawsuits Filed in Utah Federal Courts: 2013-2017: 2013 (1), 2014 (6), 2015 (1), 2016 (124), Jan.-May 2017 (125)

Nine plaintiffs are responsible for the 2017 numbers so far, with one who has filed 57 such suits.  Another six plaintiffs have each filed between 9 and 15 cases, and two have only filed one case each.  These plaintiffs have been represented by one of six law firms, one of which was counsel in 105 of the 124 cases filed in 2016.  Most of these cases appear to concern alleged architectural barriers in public accommodations facilities.

Utah businesses are not likely to experience the level of disability access litigation as their counterparts in California, Florida, or New York, but we are not ruling out that possibility.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The first trial under the ADA about the accessibility of a public accommodation’s website took place last week in the Southern District of Florida.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Robert Scola presided over — to the best of our knowledge — the first trial in the history of the ADA about the accessibility of a public accommodation’s website in the case captioned Gil v. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc.  According to the court’s docket, the two-day trial consisted of testimony by the plaintiff, plaintiff’s website accessibility expert, and a corporate representative from Winn Dixie.  No expert testified on behalf of Winn Dixie.  The matter is now “under advisement” of the Court.

To avoid trial, Winn Dixie had filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings earlier in the case asking the court to dismiss the case on the theory that a website is not a public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA.  As we reported, Judge Scola rejected this argument holding that the plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts that, if proven at trial, would establish a “nexus” between Winn Dixie’s physical store and its website that would place the website within the ADA’s reach.

Stay tuned for Judge Scola’s decision.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey.

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:  A Florida Judge Holds that SeaWorld’s website is not a place of public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA but the decision has its limits.

Defendants fighting website accessibility lawsuits in the past several years have not had a great deal of success, so the recent decision by Florida federal Magistrate Judge Carol Mirando holding that SeaWorld’s website is not a place of public accommodation was a small bright spot — albeit one with limitations.

The disabled pro se plaintiff in this case sued SeaWorld under Title III of the ADA because the business allegedly did not provide him with an electric wheelchair or allow his two service dogs entry.  The court held that the plaintiff did not have standing to bring these claims because there was no threat of imminent harm.  The plaintiff also alleged that SeaWorld’s website was not accessible to individuals with disabilities, although it is not clear how his disability impacted his use of the website.  The court rejected this claim, holding:

“Neither Busch Gardens’ nor SeaWorld’s online website is a physical or public accommodation under the ADA.  The Internet is a unique medium — known to its users as ‘cyberspace’ — located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to the internet.  Hence, Plaintiff is unable to demonstrate that either Busch Gardens’ or SeaWorld’s online website prevents his access to a specific, physical, concrete space such as a particular airline ticket counter or travel agency.  As a result, Plaintiff may not plead a claim based on accessibility of an online website under Title III of the ADA.”

In so holding, the court cited to Access Now, Inc. v. Southwest Airlines, Co., 227 F.Supp.2d 1312 (S.D.Fl. 2002), where another Florida district court had dismissed an ADA Title III claim against Southwest because the Southwest website was neither a public accommodation nor was a means of accessing a physical place of public accommodation.  The court in the Southwest Airlines case relied on the Eleventh Circuit holding in Rendon v. Valleycrest Prods., 294 F.3d 117 (11th Cir. 2002). There, the appellate court held that a plaintiff alleging that the telephone screening process for the Who Wants to be a Millionaire gameshow had stated a claim under Title III of the ADA — despite the fact that the telephone was not a physical place — because the screening process was a means of accessing the show which took place in a physical location.

The SeaWorld decision is not surprising in light of the Rendon decision and this pro se plaintiff’s failure to plead that the inaccessibility of the website prevented him from accessing a physical place of public accommodation.  The outcome could have been different if the case had been brought by a different plaintiff who was represented by competent counsel.

Moreover, as we have noted, other judicial circuits such as the First Circuit do not require that a business have a nexus to a physical location to be a place of public accommodation.  Thus, plaintiffs bringing lawsuits about websites that do not have a nexus to a physical place will likely choose those circuits for their lawsuits.  The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has also made clear its position that a website need not have any connection to a physical place to be covered by the ADA.  Thus, businesses that choose to argue in defense of a lawsuit that their websites are not public accommodations may invite an intervention by the DOJ as we blogged about last month.

In short, many considerations should go into a business’ decision as to whether it should fight or resolve a website accessibility lawsuit.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

Marcapitolianne Wilson of Chain Store Age Media reported today that the “ADA Education and Reform Act of 2015”, H.R. 3765, introduced yesterday, October 20, 2015, by Representatives Ted Poe (R-TX), Doug Collins (R-GA) and David Jolly (R-FL), seeks to address ADA “drive-by” lawsuits. This is a topic about which we’ve reported about numerous times, such as here. Wilson reported Tom McGee, president and CEO of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), a group endorsing the proposed legislation believes the bill will “ensure[] resources are focused on improving access while protecting businesses from abusive lawsuits.” The article notes ICSC cited our blog’s data, which shows that from 2013 to 2014 the number of ADA Title III lawsuits surged by more than 63%.

What would the bill require?

The bill would require that DOJ’s Disability Rights Section, in consultation with property owners and representatives of the disability rights community, develop a program to educate State and local governments and property owners on effective and efficient strategies for promoting access to public accommodations for persons with a disability, such as training for Certified Access Specialist professionals.

The bill would also make it unlawful for any person to send a demand letter alleging a violation of the ADA unless the letter specifies details about the alleged denial of access circumstances, the address of the property, the specific sections of the ADA violated, and whether a request was made to remove an architectural barrier, and whether the barrier to access was permanent or temporary. Failure to comply with that provision subjects the demanding party to a fine. It also would amend the ADA to provide that a civil action based on failure to remove architectural barriers in existing public accommodations may not be brought unless the complaining party has first provided specific notice to the owner or operator of the public accommodation, after which the owner or operator would have 60 days to provide a written description of improvements to remove the barrier, and the owner or operator has not made those improvements within 120 days.

Finally, the bill directs the US Judicial Conference to, with property owners and representatives of the disability rights community, develop a model program to promote the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, including a stay of discovery during mediation, to resolve claims of architectural barriers to access. The goal of the program would be promote access quickly and efficiently without costly litigation. As many are aware, such a program already exists in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Its General Order 56 requires a stay of discovery except for certain disclosures until after a joint inspection, meet and confer, and mediation with the Court’s ADR unit has occurred.

We will continue to follow this legislation as it moves through the process.

Domain names and internet conceptBy Minh N. Vu

For today’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we have yet another Department of Justice enforcement action to report relating to the allegedly inaccessible websites and other technologies.  This time, DOJ is trying to intervene in an existing lawsuit, Dudley v. Miami University, filed by a former Miami University student who is blind.  Although the lawsuit is brought under Title II of the ADA which applies to state and local government entities and not public accommodations, the obligations under the Title II and III are very similar. Thus, the DOJ’s position in this lawsuit provides useful insight into how it would treat private universities and other public accommodations covered by Title III of the ADA.

On May 12, 2015, the DOJ sought permission from the court to intervene in the lawsuit as an additional plaintiff.  If the request is granted, the lawsuit’s scope will widen.  As an individual plaintiff, Ms. Dudley can only seek injunctive relief that relates to her own disability (blindness) and attorneys’ fees.  The DOJ, on the other hand, can and is seeking injunctive relief that would benefit people with other types of disabilities such as those who are deaf or hard of hearing.  In addition, the DOJ can seek compensatory damages for past and present students who have been harmed, and a civil penalty of up to $75,000.

The DOJ’s action stems from the University’s obligation ensure that its communications with individuals with disabilities is effective.  One question we often get is whether a public accommodation is required to ensure that all of its communications with the public are effective, or just those that relate to the core goods and services that the public accommodation offers (e.g, communications by a university to students and prospective students about its courses and programs).  Some advocacy groups have taken the position that all material posted on any university website must be accessible for the benefit of the public at large, even if the material is not directly related to any coursework or other programs offered by the school. Continue Reading Another DOJ Action over Allegedly Inaccessible Websites and Other Technologies

Blind woman and a guide dogBy Kristen Verrastro and Andrew McNaught

Recently, a Federal court in Northern California denied Uber Technologies, Inc.’s request to dismiss an access lawsuit. The plaintiffs, National Federation of the Blind of California (“NFBC”) and individual blind members with guide dogs, filed an ADA lawsuit alleging Uber-X drivers committed various forms of discrimination, including refusing to transport blind riders with their service animals.

For example, one blind member of NFBC alleged an Uber-X driver pulled up to the curb; yelled “no dogs;” and then cursed at him before taking off without the NFBC member in the driver’s vehicle. The complaint also alleges that Uber-X drivers have mishandled guide dogs, in one instance even forcing a guide dog into the closed trunk of a sedan before transporting the blind rider. When the blind rider realized where the Uber-X driver placed her dog, she pleaded with the driver, who refused to pull over so the rider could remove the dog from the trunk.

Below, we discuss the arguments considered by the Court regarding Uber’s motion to dismiss. The Court ultimately determined that: (1) the plaintiffs had standing under the ADA; and (2) Uber may be subject to the ADA, potentially as a place of “public accommodation.”

Plaintiffs’ Standing under the ADA

Uber argued that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuit because, among other state law arguments: (1) one plaintiff did not have standing under the ADA’s deterrent effect doctrine; and (2) another plaintiff did not have standing as to the likelihood of future harm under the ADA.

The Court rejected Uber’s arguments. In finding that plaintiffs have standing under the ADA, the Court noted that the plaintiffs shouldn’t have to engage in a “futile” attempt to access services when they: (1) have knowledge that Uber has refused service to passengers with service animals; and (2) believe there is a likelihood such refusals will continue. Specifically, the Court said that “the ADA directs this Court to relax its standard for injury in fact in order to discourage both piecemeal litigation and futile attempts at access” when plaintiffs have actual notice of the alleged discriminatory practice and are in fact deterred from attempting access.

The Court also granted NFBC associational standing to bring suit under the ADA on behalf of its members.

Uber May Be Subject to the ADA Continue Reading Federal Lawsuit Challenging Uber X’s Exclusion of Service Animals Shifts into Discovery

wooden gavel on laptopFailure to Provide an Accessible Alternative Is Not Intentional Discrimination Sufficient to Establish an ADA-Independent Unruh Act Claim

By Kristina M. Launey and Minh N. Vu

On April 1, 2015, the Ninth Circuit became the first federal appellate court in the country to hold that web-only businesses are not places of public accommodation under the ADA.

As we previously reported, the Ninth Circuit two weeks ago heard oral argument in two cases on the question of whether a business that offers its goods and services only through a website is a “public accommodation” covered by Title III of the ADA. The Ninth Circuit had previously held, in Weyer v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 198 F.3d 1104, 1114 (9th Cir. 2000), that the statute only applies to businesses that have a connection to a physical place where they offer their goods and services, but this precedent did not specifically concern a website.

The Ninth Circuit followed this prior precedent in holding in Cullen v. Netflix and Earll v. Ebay that Netflix’s video streaming service and eBay’s web-based business are not subject to the ADA’s non-discrimination mandate because their services are not connected to any “actual, physical place.” The Court held that the phrase “place of public accommodation” requires “some connection between the good or service complained of and an actual physical place.”

This decision comes only a week after a district court in Vermont came down the opposite way after determining the authorities trial courts in the Ninth Circuit had relied upon, and which the Ninth Circuit relied upon in its April 1 orders, were not dispositive, as we reported here.

The Ninth Circuit decided additional California law-specific issues in Earll. It held that the DPA claim failed at a matter of law because Earll did not allege a violation of any separate applicable accessibility standard, such as the California Building Code. It also held that Earll’s Unruh Act claim failed because he had failed to allege intentional discrimination. Specifically, the Court found that the aural identification system used by eBay on its website applies to all eBay users, whether hearing impaired or not, and that eBay’s failure to provide a deaf-accessible alternative to that system does not amount to willful, affirmative misconduct sufficient to constitute intentional discrimination.

The opinions are only 3-4 pages long, not published, and expressly non-precedential. The plaintiffs may well appeal to the US Supreme Court to finally resolve this important issue of whether web-only businesses are places of public accommodation under the ADA.

(Photo) Online ShoppingBy Christina F. Jackson, Kristina M. Launey, Minh N. Vu Courts on both coasts have grappled with whether Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to websites of businesses that have no physical place of business where customers go. One judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts answered this question in the affirmative, holding that Netflix’s video streaming website is a “place of public accommodation” covered by Title III of the ADA, even if the website has no connection to a brick and mortar business. In contrast, two judges from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California have held that Netflix and eBay’s websites are not covered by Title III of the ADA because they did not have a connection to an actual, physical place of business. These judges were all purporting to follow Court of Appeals precedents in their respective circuits, although those precedents did not specifically concern websites. Title III of the ADA and its regulations provide little guidance because they were drafted before the Internet became so ubiquitous.

Last Friday, on March 13, 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument on the question of whether a web-only business is a place of public accommodation under the ADA and California state laws predicated upon the ADA in Cullen v. Netflix and Earll v. eBay, Inc.. (We’ll explore the California-specific issues more in-depth in a separate post.) Recordings of the oral arguments are available here and here.

Does Title III of the ADA apply to web-only businesses? Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Hears Arguments: Are Web-Only Businesses “Places of Public Accommodation” Subject to Title III?