Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

Seyfarth Synopsis: Two New York federal judges recently said that the ADA covers websites (even those not connected to a physical place) and one held that working on improving the accessibility of one’s website does not make the ADA claim moot.

The number of district court judges siding with plaintiffs in website accessibility cases is increasing. On June 13, a Florida federal judge issued the first web accessibility trial verdict against grocer Winn Dixie for having a website that could not be used by the blind plaintiff.  Two days later, a California federal judge held that a blind plaintiff’s website accessibility lawsuit against retailer Hobby Lobby could proceed to discovery.  Now two federal judges in New York have weighed in, denying restaurant Five Guys’ and retailer Blick’s motions to dismiss lawsuits alleging that the defendants’ inaccessible websites violate the ADA and New York State and City civil rights laws. Both judges found that: (1) websites are subject to the ADA, regardless of whether the goods and services are offered online and in physical locations; and (2) courts don’t need agency regulations setting a standard for website accessibility to decide whether a website violates the ADA. The court in Five Guys additionally held that being in the process of improving a website’s accessibility is very different from having successfully completed that process to meet the mootness standard of being “absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.” It summarily rejected the restaurant’s mootness argument on that basis.

In the Blick putative class action, Eastern District Court Judge Weinstein issued a lengthy 38-page order on August 1 that addressed the issue of whether a nexus to a physical place of business is required to subject a website to the ADA. The opinion expressed sympathy for blind individuals who are unable to use some websites with their screen reader software and marshalled every possible argument in favor of finding that all websites that fall within the twelve types of businesses classified as “places of public accommodation” are covered by the ADA.  Judge Weinstein first surveyed relevant decisions from federal courts in other circuits.  Although the Ninth Circuit is the only appellate court that has actually addressed the coverage of a website under Title III of the ADA (all other Court of Appeals decisions have concerned other matters, mostly insurance products), he found that the Third, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits have held that only businesses with a “nexus” to a physical location are subject to the ADA.  He characterized this interpretation of the law as “narrow” because it would mean that “a business that operates solely through the Internet and has no customer-facing physical location is under no obligation to make [its] website accessible.” The court then considered First and Seventh Circuit decisions which have held that a business does not need a physical place of business where customers go to be considered public accommodations under the ADA.

Finally, looking to its own Court of Appeals (which has not squarely addressed the question of whether a business with no physical location can be covered by Title III of the ADA or considered a website accessibility case), the Blick court relied upon an extended interpretation of the Second Circuit’s holding in Pallozzi – an insurance policy case – to hold that a business that has no physical place of business can be a covered public accommodation under the ADA.  Notably, the defendant in Pallozzi had a physical place of business where the plaintiff had purchased the allegedly discriminatory insurance product.  The Second Circuit held in Pallozzi that Title III of the ADA reaches beyond access barriers at a physical location and extends to the terms of the products sold from that physical location. It did not hold, nor even state in dicta, that a business with no physical location is covered by the ADA in the first place, or that a business’ website is covered by the ADA.

In holding that a website does not need a nexus to a physical location to be covered by the ADA, Judge Weinstein aligned himself with two other District Court judges in the Second Circuit (District of Vermont Judge William K. Sessions III and New York Southern District Judge Katherine Forrest) who reached the same conclusion in cases brought against Scribd and Five Guys, respectively.   

The Blick decision also rejects the recent Bang & Olufsen decision out of the Southern District of Florida, which followed the Target case in holding an ADA website access claim can only survive a motion to dismiss if the website’s inaccessibility has an actual nexus to the business’ physical location. The Bang & Olufsen court held that the plaintiff had not stated an ADA Title III claim because his complaint did not allege that the alleged website barriers in any way impeded his ability to shop at the physical store. The Blick court found this interpretation of the ADA “absurd,” as it would require that only select aspects of Blick’s website and online presence be accessible to the blind, such as allowing disabled individuals “a right to ‘pre-shop’ in their home, but no right to actually make a purchase in their home,” and provide disabled individuals “no right whatsoever to purchase goods or services from companies whose business models (e.g. television shopping channels, catalogs, online-only) are premised on having customers shop only from home.”

The court concluded its 22-page discussion of the issue by stating the plaintiff “has a substantive right to obtain effective access to Blick’s website to make purchases, learn about products, and enjoy the other goods, services, accommodations, and privileges the defendant’s website provides to the general public.” It also found that the plaintiff might be able to enforce his rights through a class action, but that issue would wait until after the parties’ motion(s) for summary judgment. The court also stated that it would convene a “Science Day” where experts would demonstrate web access technology to the court “to explore how burdensome it would be for the defendant to make its website compatible with available technology.”

Both the Blick and Five Guys decisions rejected the argument that Justice Department regulations setting website accessibility requirements are necessary for a finding that a defendant has violated the ADA by having an inaccessible website. Like the District of Massachusetts in denying MIT and Harvard’s motions to dismiss, and the Central District of California in denying Hobby Lobby’s motion (contrary to a different decision out of that same district) the Blick court rejected the primary jurisdiction argument on the basis that it is the court’s job to interpret and apply statutes and regulations and the risk of inconsistent rulings is outweighed by plaintiff’s right to prompt adjudication of his claim. The court discussed the long history of the Justice Department’s website accessibility rulemaking efforts before concluding that “t[]he court will not delay in adjudicating [plaintiff’s] claim on the off-chance the DOJ promptly issues regulations it has contemplated issuing for seven years but has yet to make significant progress on.”  Both courts rejected the defendants’ due process arguments, stating no standard set by statute or regulation for is needed for the ADA’s requirements of “reasonable modifications,” “auxiliary aids and services,” and “full and equal enjoyment” to apply to website accessibility. In rejecting Five Guys’ argument that there are no regulations setting forth accessibility standards for websites, the Five Guys court noted that there are steps defendant could take, such as using the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Finally, the Blick decision addressed the coverage of website accessibility claims under the New York State Human Rights Law, New York State Civil Rights Law, and New York City Human Rights Law, and found that such claims were covered to the same extent as they are under Title III of the ADA.

While there is no way of knowing whether other federal judges in New York will agree with the holdings of District Judges Weinstein and Forrest, more lawsuits will likely be filed in New York after these decisions.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Today’s first impression trial verdict finding retailer Winn-Dixie liable under Title III of the ADA for having an inaccessible website suggests that public accommodations should focus on their website accessibility efforts now.

As we reported yesterday, Florida federal District Court Judge Robert Scola last week presided over the first trial in the history of the ADA about an allegedly inaccessible website.  Today, Judge Scola issued a 13-page Verdict and Order finding that grocer Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the ADA by having a website that was not useable by plaintiff Juan Carlos Gil to download coupons, order prescriptions, and find store locations.  Mr. Gil is blind and uses screen reader software to access websites.  Judge Scola ordered injunctive relief, including a draft three-year injunction we have included below, and awarded Mr. Gil his attorneys’ fees and costs.

Although the decision is not binding on any other federal courts or judges – not even in the same judicial district – it is significant for a number of reasons.

First, it is the first decision to hold, after a full trial, that a public accommodation violated Title III of the ADA by having an inaccessible website.  To the extent that businesses are considering whether to settle or litigate these cases, this decision makes the possibility of an adverse verdict much more real.

Second, the draft injunction adopts the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as the accessibility standard that Winn-Dixie must meet in making its website accessible.  WCAG 2.0 AA is a set of guidelines developed by a private group of accessibility experts and has not been adopted as the legal standard for public accommodation websites, although it has been incorporated into many consent decrees, settlement agreements, and is the standard the Department of Justice referenced in the Title II rulemaking process.  The court’s adoption of this set of guidelines further points to WCAG 2.0 AA as the de facto standard for website accessibility.

Third, the court did not consider the $250,000 cost of making the website accessible to be an undue burden.  The court said this cost “pales in comparison to the $2 million Winn-Dixie spent in 2015 to open the website and the $7 million it spent in 2016 to remake the website for the Plenti program.”

Fourth, commenting on an issue causing many businesses concern, the court held Winn-Dixie responsible for the entire website’s lack of accessibility even though parts of the website are operated by third party vendors.  It stated: “[M]any, if not most, of the third party vendors may already be accessible to the disabled and, if not, Winn-Dixie has a legal obligation to require them to be accessible if they choose to operate within the Winn-Dixie website.”

The court issued the following draft injunction, and ordered the parties to confer about the deadlines to be inserted in the blanks.

***

Pursuant to the terms of this Order and Injunction, Winn-Dixie, Inc.:

  1. Shall not, no later than _____(date) _____, deny individuals with disabilities, including the Plaintiff, the opportunity to participate and benefit from the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations provided through its website www.winndixie.com. The website must be accessible by individuals with disabilities who use computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones.
  2. Shall not, no later than _____(date) _____, provide individuals with disabilities, including the Plaintiff, an unequal opportunity to participate and benefit from the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations provided through its website www.winndixie.com. The website must be accessible by individuals with disabilities who use computers, laptops, tablets and smart phones.
  3. No later than _____(date) _____, shall adopt and implement a Web Accessibility Policy which ensures that its website conforms with the WCAG 2.0 criteria.
  4. No later than _____(date) _____, shall require any third party vendors who participate on its website to be fully accessible to the disabled by conforming with WCAG 2.0 criteria.
  5. No later than _____(date) _____, shall make publicly available and directly link from the www.winndixie.com homepage, a statement of WinnDixie’s Accessibility Policy to ensure the persons with disabilities have full and equal enjoyment of its website and shall accompany the public policy statement with an accessible means of submitting accessibility questions and problems.
  6. No later than _____(date) _____, and at least once yearly thereafter, shall provide mandatory web accessibility training to all employees who write or develop programs or code for, or who publish final content to, www.winndixie.com on how to conform all web content and services with WCAG 2.0 criteria.
  7. No later than _____(date) _____, and at least once every three months thereafter, shall conduct automated accessibility tests of its website to identify any instances where the website is no longer in conformance with WCAG 2.0.
  8. If the Plaintiff believes the Injunction has been violated, he shall give notice (including reasonable particulars) to the Defendant of such violation. The Defendant shall have 30 days from the notice to investigate and correct any alleged violations. If the Defendant fails to correct the violation, the Plaintiff may then seek relief from the Court.
  9. In light of what the Court has already found to be the Defendant’s sincere and serious intent to make its website accessible to all, this Injunction will expire in three years.

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In the absence of any regulations setting forth the requirements for a website accessibility program, this injunction, once finalized, will provide a judicially-approved framework for such a program for those public accommodations that want to adopt one.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey.

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.

Seyfarth Synopsis: New Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Regulations will require covered entities providing health care programs and services have accessible electronic information technology, including accessible websites.

While we continue to wait for new regulations for the websites of state and local governments, federal agencies and public accommodations, two new regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) strongly suggest that health care provider websites must conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA to meet their non-discrimination obligations.

Effective July 18, 2016, a new “Meaningful Access” rule interpreting the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Section 1557 Anti-Discrimination requirements will require providers of health care programs and services that receive federal financial assistance comply with new requirements for effective communication (EIT) (including accessible electronic information technology), and physical accessibility.  Because most health care providers do receive federal funds through Medicare reimbursements, this rule has broad coverage.  Effective July 1, 2017, new Medicaid rules will require managed care programs to have (EIT) that complies with “modern accessibility standards,” and impose other effective-communication requirements such as large print and other alternative formats.

Section 1557 of the ACA requires covered entities to ensure that health programs and services provided through EIT be accessible to individuals with disabilities unless doing so would result in undue financial and administrative burdens (in which case the entity must provide the information in an equally accessible alternative format) or a fundamental alteration in the nature of the health program or activity.   HHS did not specify a website accessibility standard in the new rule.   However, the agency said that compliance with accessibility requirements would be “difficult” for covered entities that do not adhere “to standards such as the WCAG 2.0 AA standards or the Section 508 standards,” and “encourages compliance” with these standards. Moreover, recipients of federal funding and State-based Marketplaces” must ensure that their health programs and activities provided through websites comply with the requirements of Title II of the ADA — requirements that are the subject of a pending rulemaking at the Department of Justice.  The Rule also requires providers to give “primary consideration” to the patient or customer’s auxiliary aid or service for communication.

The new Medicaid Rule will require that entities providing managed care programs provide information in a format that is “readily accessible”, which it defines to mean “electronic information and services which comply with modern accessibility standards such as section 508 guidelines, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA and successor versions.”  The agency intends this definition to be more clear, reflect technology advances, and align with the requirements of Section 504, and recommends entities consult the latest section 508 guidelines or WCAG 2.0 AA.

While both rules make reference to the Section 508 standards for accessible websites which has been the standard for federal agency sites for many years, all indicators point to WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard to use when working to improve the accessibility of a website.  The federal government has issued a proposed rule to replace the existing Section 508 standards with WCAG 2.0 AA.  Most experts we deal with consider the Section 508 standards outdated.  WCAG 2.0 AA was developed by a private consortium of experts called the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), and is the website access “standard” in all U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) settlement agreements. It is also the legal standard for all airline websites covered by the Air Carrier Access Act.  Moreover, DOJ has indicated in its Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for state and local government websites that WCAG 2.0 AA should be the legal standard for such websites.

Seyfarth Synopsis: NYC recently passed a law requiring that its government agency websites meet accessibility standards.  Other state and local governments may follow NYC’s lead and enact accessibility standards for government agencies, contractors and even public accommodations in the absence of regulations from DOJ.

On March 14, New York City became the first major municipality in the United States to adopt legislation mandating accessibility standards for all of its government agency websites.  Serving a population of over 8 million, the New York City government includes more than 120 agencies staffed by approximately 325,000 employees.  This legislation will have an impact on City agencies, and access for persons with disabilities to those institutions.  It may also have an impact on future website regulations impacting businesses across the country.

Recent NYC Legislation

The website legislation (Intro. 683-A) was among three disability access bills that Mayor Bill De Blasio signed into law on the same day.  In addition to mandating website protocols, the legislation requires that each City agency designate a “disability service facilitator,” and publicize, among other things, the availability of wheelchair access, communication access real-time translation, sign language interpretation, assistive listening systems (e.g. loop technology), and any other accommodations to be made available for all public events.  This sweeping legislative mandate also expressly requires that City government websites display New York State’s controversial “Accessible Icon” (rather than the International Symbol of Access), to designate venues for government meetings or other events that are accessible to wheelchair users.

NYC Must Adopt an Accessible Website Protocol within 6 Months 

The new City law underscores that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level AA (“WCAG 2.0 AA”) is increasingly becoming the de facto standard for website accessibility, despite the continued lack of any regulations from the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) setting a legally-required standard for state and local governments under Title II of the ADA, or for public accommodations (i.e. private businesses) under Title III.

Under the new law, the City must establish a website protocol within 6 months that incorporates: (1) Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 508”); (2) WCAG 2.0 AA; or (3) any “successor” standards.  The Section 508 standard applies to the federal government websites and  consists of a list of 16 requirements that are less rigorous than WCAG 2.0 AA.  But last year the Access Board proposed a rule that would, among other things, adopt WCAG 2.0 AA as the new website standard under Section 508.  Thus, if the City incorporates Section 508 in its website protocol, its agency websites may be subject to WCAG 2.0 Level AA once the final Section 508 regulations are issued.

There are several exceptions to the new accessibility mandate.  The City may adopt protocols that differ from Section 508, WCAG 2.0 AA, or any successor standard, but if it does, it must first consult with experts in website design, conduct a public hearing, and ensure that any differences will still provide effective communication for persons with disabilities.  In addition, the law does not require the “fundamental alteration” of any service, program, or activity, and shall not impose an “undue financial or administrative burden.”

Potential Impact on Businesses

The adoption of accessibility standards for government websites in the most populous city in the United States is significant.  Other municipalities may follow New York City’s lead and pass their own legislation or regulations for accessible features in government websites.  This may result in differing local standards across jurisdictions, which would undermine DOJ’s efforts to implement a comprehensive, national set of rules for website accessibility under Title II of the ADA.

State and local legislators may decide to extend the WCAG 2.0 AA’s reach to the websites of private businesses doing business with state or local governments, or the public, after they are done dealing with their agency websites.  This could follow the model of Ontario, Canada, where the provincial government enacted regulations requiring businesses with 50 or more employees in Ontario to ensure that their websites meet WCAG 2.0 Level A guidelines (and to meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA by 2021).  Based on the progressive legislative and regulatory agenda of the current mayoral administration, we would not be surprised if New York City passed a future law requiring that government contractors or businesses with a presence in the City provide accessible websites.

The bottom line is that if DOJ continues to delay in issuing proposed rules for website accessibility, states and local governments may step into that void and enact rules of their own for government entities, contractors, and even public accommodations.  This could subject businesses to potentially inconsistent rules across jurisdictions.  It is yet another reason why DOJ guidance on this topic is needed now more than ever.

Edited by Minh Vu and Kristina Launey.