By Erin McPhail Wetty

Last month, a California district court reaffirmed that Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“Title III”) does not require a public accommodation to offer accessible goods (i.e. videos with captioning) as part of its inventory.  In Jancik v. Redbox Automated Retail, LLC, No. SACV 13-1387-DOC, 2014 WL 1920751 (C.D. Cal. May 14, 2014), a deaf individual claimed that Redbox violated Title III by not making more closed-captioned videos available at its DVD rental kiosks, despite his requests.  The plaintiff also argued that Redbox Digital failed to closed-caption all of its online videos that were available for streaming, in violation of Title III.  The defendants filed a motion to dismiss both claims.

The Court held that Title III does not regulate the content or characteristic of goods that places of public accommodation provide—“the goods in a retailer’s industry”—such as the DVDs Redbox offered at its rental kiosks.  In so holding, the Court relied on regulations, which explicitly state that a public accommodation is not required to “alter its inventory to include accessible or special goods that are designed for, or facilitate use by, individuals with disabilities.”  The plaintiff argued that DVDs should not be considered special goods because of recent technological advances that make captioning DVDs easier.  In rejecting this argument, the Court reasoned that the ease of captioning does not affect whether or not captioned DVDs should be viewed as accessible goods.  Rather, the Court concluded that the plaintiff’s request was essentially a request for Redbox to change its DVD inventory at its kiosks, which Title III does not require.  This ruling is not a positive development for advocates of the deaf and hard of hearing who are pushing for more captioning of video content.  It is also significant in driving home the point that Title III regulates the entity’s provision of a good, not the content or creation of that good.

The Court also found that Redbox Digital did not have to caption its library of web-based videos for deaf or hard-of-hearing consumers because a website is not a place of public accommodation under Title III.  This outcome is not surprising because courts in the Ninth Circuit have taken the position that only websites that have a nexus to a brick and mortar public accommodations location are covered by Title III of the ADA.  The outcome on this point would likely have been different had the case been brought in the First Circuit—where the Massachusetts District Court held that Netflix’s online video-streaming website was covered by Title III, even though Netflix had no brick and mortar place of business, as we previously reported.

This case is significant as one of the few, yet increasing, cases addressing the applicability of Title III to emerging technologies, such as the internet and captioning, that were not contemplated in 1992 when the ADA was enacted.  Even more so, because in the absence of regulations setting requirements for web accessibility, some may point to this case as evidence websites are not subject to Title III, while others point to the Massachusetts Netflix case to argue the contrary.  In view of the recent wave of lawsuits and enforcement actions surrounding accessibility of business’ websites, this area of law is evolving very quickly.

Edited by Minh Vu and Kristina Launey