By Minh N. Vu and Kristina M. Launey

Seyfarth Synopsis: Congress Members recently renewed their efforts to take legislative action and urge the DOJ take regulatory action regarding physical and website accessibility, respectively.

You have to give them credit for trying.  A group of Senators recently sent Attorney General Barr a letter asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) take action to provide some certainty and relief to businesses regarding website accessibility, and a group of Representatives introduced a bill to provide some relief to businesses from physical accessibility lawsuits.  While we appreciate their efforts, we are skeptical either will gain any traction.

On the topic of website accessibility, Senators Grassley, Tillis, Cornyn, Crapo, Ernst, Blackburn, and Rounds sent a letter dated July 30, 2019 to Attorney General Barr following up on the letter a larger group of Representatives wrote to Attorney General Sessions in 2018.  The letter sought an update and urged “further action to promote greater clarity, compliance, and accessibility” in the area of website accessibility.

The 2019 letter noted Attorney General Sessions’ October 2018 response reiterated the DOJ’s position that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites and that public accommodations have flexibility in how they will comply with the ADA’s requirements.  But, the response conspicuously lacked any indication that the DOJ would provide guidance to businesses on what it means to provide an accessible website.  The Senators’ 2019 letter emphasized the need for DOJ guidance in this area given the increasing litigation and conflicting judicial opinions on whether the ADA applies to websites at all: “Regulation through litigation should not be the standard.”

The 2019 letter closed by requesting information by August 30, 2019 – regarding what specific steps the DOJ has taken to resolve this issue in the past year, and what it intends to do; whether the DOJ considers the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 an acceptable compliance standard for Title III of the ADA; whether a business’ resources should be taken into consideration; and whether the DOJ has considered intervening in any pending litigation to provide clarity or to push back against any identified litigation abuses.

Also on July 30, 2019, Representatives Calvert, Cook, Hunter, Walker, Grothman, Turner, Rice, and Wilson introduced H.R. 4099, the latest effort to provide some relief to businesses from physical accessibility lawsuits – with a bit of web accessibility thrown in.  The bill – dubbed the “ADA Compliance for Customer Entry to Stores and Services Act”, or “ACCESS Act” – would:

(1) Require the DOJ to develop an education program for state and local governments and property owners on “effective and efficient strategies” for promoting accessibility;

(2) Prohibit a lawsuit be filed alleging a violation of the ADA without prior notice be given to the owner or operator of the business and 60 days to provide a plan to cure the violation and 60 days after to make substantial progress on that cure.  The notice must specify in detail how the individual was actually denied access to a public accommodation, whether a request for assistance to remove the barrier was made, and whether the barrier was permanent or temporary.

(3) Require development of a model alternative dispute resolution program, apparently similar in concept to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California’s General Order 56.

(4) Require the Attorney General to complete a study within one year of whether the WCAG 2.0 standards, “accessibility widgets, or providing a telephone number through which members of the public can obtain the same information and services as they would on a website would all provide reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities.”

The first three provisions are very similar to those in the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (HR 620) which passed the House but gained no traction in the Senate.  The fourth provision concerning website accessibility is new.  Requiring Department of Justice to conduct a study on alternative methods of providing access to information and functionality on a website an interesting long-term academic exercise which might someday provide some fodder for the defense bar, but it will do nothing to provide any relief to businesses facing the barrage of website accessibility claims now and in the foreseeable future.  Considering the fate of HR 620, the ACCESS Act is unlikely to become  law (though some state efforts, such as in Ohio, have succeeded).  We will monitor the bill as well as the correspondence between Congress and keep you updated.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Responding to the surge of website accessibility lawsuits filed under Title III of the ADA, 103 members of Congress from both parties sent a letter to Attorney General Sessions urging action to stem the tide of website accessibility lawsuits.

Just yesterday, a bi-partisan assembly of 103 members of the House of Representatives, led by Congressmen, Ted Budd (R-NC) and J. Luis Correa (D-CA), wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, urging the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to “state publicly that private legal action under the ADA with respect to websites is unfair and violates basic due process principles in the absence of clear statutory authority and issuance by the department of a final rule establishing website accessibility standards.” The letter urges the Department to “provide guidance and clarity with regard to website accessibility under the … ADA.”

The congressional support for this letter arises on the heels of a recent surge in website accessibility lawsuits against public accommodations in every sector alleging that websites that are not accessible by people with disabilities violate the ADA. In 2017, a number of courts rejected defendants’ attempts to obtain early dismissals of these cases and supermarket chain, Winn Dixie, lost the first trial in a website accessibility case. These decisions opened the proverbial floodgates and resulted in at least 814 federal lawsuits in 2017 about allegedly inaccessible websites, including a number of putative class actions. The federal lawsuit numbers for 2018 will likely be substantially higher as our tracking shows that there were 349 suits just in January and February of 2018. Despite the monumental increase in litigation and urgent need for clear guidance, the DOJ abandoned its rulemaking on website accessibility standards for public accommodations websites at the end of 2017, seven years after it said it would issue regulations on this issue.

With the number of website accessibility lawsuits on the rise and courts allowing most of these cases to move forward, members of Congress are feeling pressure from the business community to take action against this cottage industry of lawsuits. Indeed, as expressed in the letter:

[B]usinesses of every shape and size throughout the country are being threatened with legal action by private plaintiffs for unsubstantiated violations of the ADA. This problem is expanding at a rapid rate since the Internet allows such actions to be filed from anywhere, and there are no restrictions or limitations on making such complaints. The absence of statutory, regulatory, or other controlling language on this issue only fuels the proliferation of these suits since there are no requirements these complaints have to meet. In fact, in most cases these suits are filed for the purpose of reaching a financial settlement and little or nothing to improve website accessibility.

We support the original spirit and intent of the ADA. However, unresolved questions about the applicability of the ADA to websites as well as the [DOJ’s] abandonment of the effort to write a rule defining website accessibility standards, has created a liability hazard that directly affects businesses in our states and the customers they serve.

Although the members of Congress who endorsed the letter acknowledged Congress’ own responsibility to provide legal clarity through the legislative process, they implored the DOJ to provide “even basic direction on compliance” and to “help resolve this situation as soon as possible.”

It is unclear whether this letter will spurn any prompt action from the DOJ. Given the current Administration’s aversion to increased regulation, it is unlikely that the DOJ will re-start its website accessibility rulemaking any time soon. And unlike the Obama Administration which weighed in on the private lawsuits brought against Winn-Dixie, M.I.T. and Harvard University, the Trump Administration declined to file a brief in a website accessibility case last year despite the district court’s invitation. Thus, we will have to wait and see how Attorney General Sessions and the DOJ react to the congressional letter. In the meantime, we expect website accessibility lawsuits will continue to be filed at a record pace throughout the United States.

By Minh N. Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The Supreme Court Leaves the Ninth Circuit’s Robles v. Domino’s decision intact, dashing businesses’ hope for some relief from website accessibility lawsuits.

The Supreme Court today issued its much anticipated decision on Domino’s  Pizza’s Petition for Certiorari in the Robles v. Domino’s website accessibility case, and it is not good news for businesses.  The Supreme Court declined to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision holding that (1) Title III of the ADA covers websites with a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation, and (2) imposing liability on businesses for not having an accessible website does not violate the due process rights of public accommodations even in the absence of website accessibility regulations.  The denial of certiorari means the case will go back to the District Court to be litigated on the merits.  We predict the case will settle soon after remand.

Business groups had hoped that the Supreme Court would take up the Domino’s case and issue a decision that would end — or at least minimize — the tsunami of website accessibility lawsuits that have hit public accommodations nationwide.  That has not happened, leaving the business community with no real options for relief.  The Department of Justice has no plan to issue any regulations on website accessibility and the likelihood that Congress will take any legislative action is low.  The decision is a significant victory for disability rights advocates and the cottage industry of plaintiff’s lawyers who will likely celebrate with more lawsuit filings.

Edited by Kristina Launey and John Egan

By John W. Egan

Seyfarth Synopsis: Businesses are defending record numbers of ADA Title III cases every year.  A recent decision in New York underscores the challenges business face when ADA plaintiffs are more interested in protracted litigation than settlement. 

The number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed annually has increased more than 300 percent in the last five years.  Government officials and a few judges dealing with burgeoning caseloads have taken steps to reign in abuses.  Judges have disciplined attorneys for filing indiscriminate claims without a sufficient basis, state attorneys general have stepped in to curb high volume filers of these cases, and members of Congress have urged DOJ to resolve regulatory uncertainty that has sent the number of website accessibility claims soaring to new heights.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of requirements for physical accessibility with which businesses must comply.  Unlike local building code enforcement, non-compliance with ADA design standards is not simply redressed by a fine.  Violation of these standards can give rise to a lawsuit in which a prevailing plaintiff can recover reasonable attorneys’ fees under the ADA’s fee-shifting provisions and, in some jurisdictions, an award of damages under state and municipal disability access laws.

In addition to fending off an increasing barrage of ADA lawsuits, businesses face the prospect of expending even more resources when the other side resists settlement in favor of litigation.  A New York federal judge recently issued a decision criticizing a plaintiffs-side ADA firm that reportedly had no interest in settling an ADA case, even where the businesses were willing to remediate (and did remediate) ADA violations identified in the Complaint.

In Range v. 535 Broadway Group, LLC, Plaintiff asserted ADA, state and city law claims against a clothing store that occupied two stories in a multi-story, mixed use Manhattan building.  While the case was pending, Defendant remediated nearly all alleged barriers and attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain a settlement demand from Plaintiff.  The court ultimately dismissed the ADA claim, and heavily criticized Plaintiff’s firm in doing so in its opinion.

The court stated that the firm was “impeding the progress of the case” by refusing to provide a global settlement demand and expressing “little interest” in resolving claims over barriers that Defendant had already remediated.  The court cited other reported decisions critical of the firm’s “litigation gamesmanship,” which was reportedly part of its “repertoire” in ADA cases.

After reviewing Defendant’s motion for dismissal based on the pleadings, Plaintiff’s firm requested to amend the Complaint to withdraw the federal claim and assert only state and city law claims for damages.  The court “rejected . . . . that maneuver as a thinly veiled attempt . . . to forum shop and seek a do-over in state court.”  Plaintiff then opposed dismissal of the very same ADA claim he previously agreed to withdraw, and advanced an interpretation of the applicable regulation relating to accessible route requirements for multi-story buildings that was, the court noted, inconsistent with his attorney’s position in another case in the same jurisdiction.  The court went so far as to describe the argument as one Plaintiff’s attorneys “kn[ew] is a loser.”

According to the court, “[s]uch freewheeling advocacy is of no use to a judge, . . . flirts with violating Rule 11 . . . .[,]” and “waste’s everyone’s time.”  The court dismissed the ADA claim, but exercised supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s New York City Human Rights Law claim, which the court held could not be dismissed on a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

Businesses are defending a record number of ADA lawsuits annually.  As a remedial statute that awards attorneys’ fees to a prevailing plaintiff, businesses are often incentivized to reach a settlement before expending significant resources in litigation.  The emergence of plaintiffs-side attorneys interested in pursuing protracted litigation, despite a business’s interest in an early resolution, represents an additional concern for businesses seeking to limit their exposure from predatory ADA lawsuits.

Edited by Minh N. Vu

By Minh N. Vu, Julia Sarnoff, Kristina Launey

Seyfarth synopsis: California Court of Appeal affirms ruling that inaccessible restaurant website violated the Unruh Act and orders that restaurant website comply with WCAG 2.0 Level AA.

Before September 3, 2019, there were four substantive California state trial court decisions in website accessibility cases, and the verdict score was tied at 2-2.  Plaintiffs obtained summary judgment in two website accessibility cases concerning the websites of a retailer (Davis v. BMI/BND Travelware) and a restaurant (Thurston v. Midvale Corporation), while defendants secured summary judgment in a website accessibility case concerning a credit union website (the case has been appealed) and a defense jury verdict in a case concerning an inaccessible hotel website. Defendant Midvale Corporation pursued an appeal, which has resulted in very favorable precedent for website accessibility plaintiffs and their lawyers.

In a 33-page published decision, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the California Superior Court’s summary judgment ruling that Midvale violated the California Unruh Civil Rights Act by having a restaurant website that could not be used by a blind person with a screen reader.  The Court of Appeal also affirmed the trial court’s injunction mandating that Midvale make the restaurant website comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA. Because the plaintiff’s Unruh Act claim was based on a violation of Title III of the ADA, the court’s analysis focused on whether Midvale violated the ADA by having an inaccessible website.

Here are some highlights from the decision:

Websites with a physical nexus are subject Title III.  The court held that that Title III of the ADA applies to a restaurant website because the website has a nexus with a physical place.  Citing to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Domino’s, the Court held that “including websites connected to a physical place of public accommodation is not only consistent with the plain language of Title III, but it is also consistent with Congress’s mandate that the ADA keep pace with the changing technology to effectuate the intent of the statute.”  The Court also provided a detailed analysis of when a website has a sufficient nexus to a physical place of public accommodation, noting that a sufficient nexus existed in this action because “the website connects customers to the services of the restaurant.”  The Court declined to consider the plaintiff’s “wholly hypothetical question” of whether Title III of the ADA governs a website unconnected to a physical place of public accommodation offering only purely internet-based services or products.  This ruling is good news (for the moment) for businesses that do not have a physical location where customers go.

Third Party Content.  In response to Midvale’s argument that its website did not really connect customers to its location because customers are directed to a third party reservation service website to make a reservation, the Court of Appeal said “appellant offers no legal support for its theory that it cannot be liable for ADA discrimination if hires someone else to do the discrimination.”  This comment and the related analysis suggest that the court would be inclined to hold businesses accountable for the inaccessibility of websites of third parties with whom they contract to provide services to customers.

Alternative Means of Effective Communication. The court held that there was no triable issue of fact about whether the restaurant’s provision of a telephone number and email address on its website was a reasonable alternative means of providing effective communication because the restaurant’s telephone line and email address were available only during the restaurant’s hours of operation.  Because a sighted individual could obtain information about the restaurant 24 hours a day by visiting the website, the Court reasoned that the telephone number and the email did not provide effective communication in a “timely manner” since “the use of either [the telephone number or email] required [the plaintiff] to depend upon another person’s convenience to obtain information.”  The court did not address, however, whether a toll-free number that is staffed 24 hours a day would have yielded a different outcome.  This leaves open the possibility that a different outcome may be achieved with a different set of facts.

Due Process. The court rejected Midvale’s argument that the trial court violated its due process rights by improperly equating ADA compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA compliance.  While agreeing that WCAG 2.0 AA is not yet a legal standard, the court determined that the trial court “clearly rejected liability based on non-compliance with the guidelines and premised liability on the website’s inaccessibility.”  The court also rejected Midvale’s argument that the trial court’s injunction implies that Midvale should have known WCAG 2.0 AA compliance was legally required under the ADA.  The court found that “the more obvious implication [of the trial court’s injunction] is that the trial court determined appellant could not or would not redesign its website to comply with ADA standards without specific guidance, and so it selected what it believed to be a widely used technical standard to provide the needed guidance.”

WCAG 2.0 AA Injunction Not Overbroad or Uncertain.  The court rejected Midvale’s argument that the trial court’s injunction to make the restaurant website comply with WCAG 2.0 AA is overbroad or uncertain because experts can differ on whether a website conforms to these guidelines.  It reasoned that experts can weigh in on Midvale’s compliance with the injunction and that this should be not be a bar to an injunction because trial courts routinely assess expert testimony.

Standing.  The court held that Midvale forfeited its claim that the plaintiff lacked standing to obtain an injunction because it failed to raise this argument in opposing plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.  However, the court pontificated that the plaintiff did have standing to obtain an injunction under the Unruh Act because she testified that she visited the website multiple times, both before and after the lawsuit was filed, and that she encountered barriers each time.  Additionally, the court noted that the plaintiff testified to having at least some general interest in the restaurant (it was on a list of places she was interested in visiting), and claimed that she was deterred from visiting the restaurant’s website as a result of the barriers she encountered.  It is possible, however, that the court’s finding on the standing issue could have been different, or at least more robustly analyzed, if Midvale had raised these arguments earlier in opposition to the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.

This decision and the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Domino’s are both highly favorable to plaintiffs seeking to bring a lawsuit against a business with a brick and mortar presence in California.  Thus, we predict a continued increase in the number of website accessibility lawsuits filed in California state and federal courts unless the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear the Domino’s case and reverses the Ninth Circuit, or Congress takes action to amend the ADA.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Domino’s Likely to File Petition for Certiorari from Ninth Circuit’s Ruling in Robles v. Domino’s.

As we reported, the Ninth Circuit held in January that a blind plaintiff could move forward with his ADA Title III lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza for having an allegedly inaccessible website and mobile app.  The court determined that allowing the claim to move forward was not a violation of Domino’s due process rights, even though the ADA and its regulations contain no definition of, or technical specifications for, “accessible” public accommodations websites.

We believe Domino’s will be petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari because on March 6, 2019, it requested a sixty-day extension of time to file said petition.  The request was filed by a newly-engaged Supreme Court specialist which further confirms our conclusion that a petition will be filed.  Justice Kagan granted the request, and Domino’s Petition for Certiorari is due on June 14, 2019.

There is a lot at stake with this petition.  Congress and the DOJ have taken no action to stop the tsunami of lawsuits against thousands of businesses about their allegedly inaccessible websites.  A Supreme Court decision could put an end to the litigation frenzy and provide some relief for businesses.

Stay tuned for updates on this exciting development.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey

Seyfarth Synopsis: A new Ohio law will require notice and opportunity to cure as a prerequisite for a plaintiff’s recovery of attorney’s fees in physical accessibility lawsuits.

Businesses across the country have been asking Congress to provide some relief from ADA “drive by” and “gotcha” lawsuits about physical access barriers at public accommodations facilities.  Federal efforts to amend the ADA stalled early in 2018, but a new Ohio law may provide businesses in that state with some advance notice and an opportunity to cure physical access violations before being held liable for paying the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees – at least under Ohio accessibility laws.

In 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, H.R. 620, which would have prohibited a plaintiff from filing a federal ADA lawsuit based on failure to remove an architectural barrier unless the plaintiff has first given the businesses notice of the alleged violations and an opportunity to provide a plan to address them.  H.R. 620 gained no traction in the U.S. Senate, however.

Ohio Governor Kasich recently signed House Bill 271, which will require a plaintiff, to be eligible for attorney’s fees, to provide a notice of an alleged accessibility law violation in advance of filing a civil action.  After serving notice, the plaintiff cannot file a lawsuit until the property owner or responsible party fails to respond or fails to remediate the violations under certain conditions and in certain time frames.  A plaintiff who provides notice but fails to allow the defendant opportunity to remediate the property as specified in the bill may forfeit entitlement to attorney’s fees, as specified in the bill.  That said, a plaintiff who does not provide notice may still be able to recover fees if the trial court determines attorney’s fees are appropriate due to the nature of the violations.

House Bill 271 says it applies to alleged violations of Ohio and federal accessibility laws (except housing discrimination), but since no state law can affect the remedies and procedures available under the federal ADA, it will not impact the recovery of attorney’s fees in ADA lawsuits.  Time will tell as to whether this legislation will cause a decrease in the number of physical accessibility lawsuits filed in Ohio, but we remain skeptical.

Edited by Minh N. Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Department of Transportation says that an airline’s provision of an accessible alternative website violates the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), so are such websites an acceptable means of providing access under the ADA?

In response to the onslaught of website accessibility lawsuits against public accommodations covered by Title III of the ADA, some website accessibility consulting companies have been promoting solutions that involve the use of an alternative version of a business’ primary website that conforms to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA (WCAG 2.0 AA).  The alternative version is typically accessed through a link on the website and, unlike the bare bones “text-only” websites of the past, looks very much like the non-accessible website. While not cheap, this solution is appealing to many businesses because it requires no coding changes to the primary website, no substantial commitment of internal company resources because it is implemented by the third party consultant, and can be implemented fairly quickly to provide immediate access for users with disabilities.

In a recent consent order against airline SAS, the Department of Transportation (DOT) made clear that these alternative websites do not meet the Air Carrier Access Act (“ACAA”) requirement that all airlines make all web pages on their primary websites accessible by December 12, 2016.  The DOT said SAS violated the ACAA’s website rules when it when it “created a separate Web site for individuals with disabilities instead of ensuring that its primary Web site met the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA standard.”   To avoid an enforcement action, SAS entered into a consent order which requires SAS to pay $100,000 in immediate penalties, and other $100,000 in penalties if it later violates the Consent Order.

The airline had engaged a well-known website accessibility consulting company to create an “assistive version” of its primary website which had a separate url from the airline’s primary website url, and could be accessed from a link on the top right of the primary website homepage.  The airline stated that it had in good faith employed this solution to meet the compliance deadline while it was building a new global primary website that would be (and is now) accessible.  It also argued that it met the undue burden exception to the website rule, which, when met, allows use of an alternate conforming website.  DOT responded that the ACAA permits air carriers to use a WCAG Level AA conforming alternate version only when conforming the primary web page to all WCAG 2.0 AA success criteria would constitute an undue burden or fundamentally alter the information or functionality provided by the primary webpage, and that SAS could not meet either exception.  The DOT cited the ACAA’s explanation for its prohibition on separate accessible websites, as “likely [to] perpetuate the problem of unequal access as carriers allot fewer resources than needed over time to properly maintain the secondary site.”  However, the Consent Order did not state that the alternative website failed to comply with the WCAG 2.0 AA in any way.  The DOT also rejected SAS’s argument that it was only using the alternative website to meet the deadline while its entirely new accessible primary website was under development.  We assume that SAS, like many other businesses, did not want to spend money remediating an old website that would soon be retired.

The DOT Consent Order raises the obvious question of whether an alternative accessible version of an inaccessible website can be used to provide access under Title III of the ADA.  We do not think the DOT Consent Order is dispositive because, unlike the ACAA which explicitly says the primary websites of airline carriers must comply with WCAG 2.0 AA, the ADA does not specify any accessibility standard for public accommodations websites.  In fact, the Department of Justice (DOJ) which is responsible for enforcing the ADA recently stated in a letter to Congress that “absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.”  That said, the Consent Order certainly raises concerns about the use of alternative accessible websites, and public accommodations should carefully examine their options before signing up for this type of solution.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Due process, DOJ’s failure to enact regulations, and whether the ADA covers websites arguments dominated the recent Domino’s Ninth Circuit oral argument.

In the increasing morass of varying state and federal district court opinions in website accessibility cases, we will soon have two additional federal appellate decisions to provide more guidance of precedential value to federal trial courts.  Most recently, on October 12, the Ninth Circuit heard the parties’ oral arguments in Robles v. Domino’s Pizza.  On October 4, the Eleventh Circuit heard oral argument in Gil v. Winn-Dixie.  We attended the Robles argument.

Sitting on the Domino’s Ninth Circuit panel were Ninth Circuit Judges Watford and Owens, and Arizona District Court Judge Zipps.  Judges Watford and Owens actively questioned all parties while Judge Zipps only listened.  The judges seemed to be leaning in Robles’ favor, expressing skepticism at many of Domino’s arguments, especially with respect to the main issue on appeal: Whether the court can apply the ADA to websites of public accommodations without regulatory guidance from the Department of Justice (DOJ).  Below is a summary of the key arguments and judges’ comments:

Primary Jurisdiction/Due Process.  The main issue on appeal is whether U.S. District Judge Otero erred in granting Domino’s motion to dismiss the case on primary jurisdiction and due process grounds.  Robles argued that the lack of specific website accessibility regulations does not eliminate the statutory obligation to comply with the ADA, and that Domino’s is not exempted from the ADA and its implementing regulations because DOJ was working on such regulations at one time.  Robles pointed out that DOJ has terminated the rulemaking process since the District Court ruled.  Robles stated that the court does not need the DOJ to rule on this issue – in fact, that the DOJ said in a recent letter (to Congressman Ted Budd) mentioning this very case that it was not going to act.

Frustration with DOJ’ s Inaction.  Not surprisingly, the DOJ continued to come up numerous times during the Domino’s argument.  Judge Watford stated that all “agree it’s a highly undesirable state for the law to be in” and “it’s DOJ that’s mainly at fault – it should have happened a long time ago.”  Domino’s asked whether the Court could certify the question for the DOJ to answer.  Judge Watford did not believe any mechanism to do so existed.  Judge Owens interjected that the DOJ could have intervened, but did not. “This shows the problem with your primary jurisdiction argument. It’s like a Samuel Beckett play – we’re just waiting and it’s not going to happen.”  Isn’t that an inherent due process problem, Domino’s asked?  “The court’s job is to interpret the law as best it can.”  If the Supreme Court doesn’t like it, it doesn’t like it.

Coverage of Websites by the ADA.  The question of whether the ADA covers websites also came up at several points.  Domino’s took the position that the ADA covers the communication on websites, but not the websites themselves – a position that Judge Owens said was contrary to what Domino’s said in District Court.  Judge Watford pointed out that the DOJ has said the ADA covers websites on numerous occasions.  In response, Domino’s said the DOJ’s latest position on this topic was a footnote in the U.S. Solicitor General’s brief filed in the McGee v. Coca Cola case which did not involve a website.  The footnote simply noted district courts have grappled with the question of whether the ADA applies to goods and services offered over the Internet.  Judge Watford said if that footnote is “all you’ve got, you’re on extremely shaky ground… you don’t have much to stand on there.”

What is an accessible website? Domino’s argued, as a possible explanation for DOJ’s inaction: “there is no such thing as an accessible website, and there never will be.” He cited the plaintiff’s expert’s statement in Winn-Dixie, also cited by the Eleventh Circuit judges in that oral argument, that the expert had never seen a website that complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).  To illustrate the difficulty businesses face in applying the guidelines, Domino’s posited how detailed the alt-text behind a picture of a basketball needs to be to conform to the guidelines – if it has LeBron James’s autograph on it, for example, does the alt-text need to go to that level of detail, or can it just say “basketball.”  He thinks the regulatory effort was stymied because the DOJ couldn’t “wrap its head around” this.

Judge Watford disagreed, “I don’t think it’s as dire as you painted”.  The Judge added, skeptically, “You want us to just throw our hands up and say this is just impossible, there’s no way to figure this out.  I don’t think that’s correct.”  Judge Watford noted any particulars as to what businesses need to do to have an accessible website can be worked out in the remedy stage.  At various points, counsel for Robles and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), as Amicus, as well as Judge Owens, remarked that the lower court had not decided whether Domino’s website was required to be, and was or was not, accessible – let alone by what standard accessibility should be measured.  Thus, those issues were not before this Court.  Judge Watford asked, since it appears the WCAG is the “only game in town”, “how could compliance with anything else render a website’s content accessible to people with vision disabilities”? (Note that in its oral argument, Winn-Dixie, appealing the district court’s order that the grocer conform its website to the WCAG, argued that such an order constituted “legislating from the bench”, which denies businesses due process.)

Telephonic Access.  At one point, Domino’s counsel stated that that people who could not use the website could call a 1-800 number.  Judge Watford reminded him that banner displaying the number was not on the Domino’s website at the time Robles attempted to access it.  The Judge did not say that the phone number could not provide a lawful alternative to access but said “we can debate whether that would be adequate.”  Amicus Counsel for the NFB expressed skepticism about whether the phone could ever be an adequate substitute, and argued that this was an issue of fact.

The Ninth Circuit will likely issue its order in the next three to twelve months.

Edited by Minh N. Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis: DOJ’s response to members of Congress about the explosion in website accessibility lawsuits contains some helpful guidance for public accommodations fighting these claims.

As we reported in June, 103 members of the House of Representatives from both parties asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “state publicly that private legal action under the ADA with respect to websites is unfair and violates basic due process principles in the absence of clear statutory authority and issuance by the department of a final rule establishing website accessibility standards.” The letter urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to “provide guidance and clarity with regard to website accessibility under the … ADA.”

DOJ’s September 25 response did not do what the members asked, but it did provide some helpful guidance and invited Congress to take legislative action to address the exploding website accessibility litigation landscape. DOJ first said it was “evaluating whether promulgating specific web accessibility standards through regulations is necessary and appropriate to ensure compliance with the ADA.” (This is helpful – to at least know this issue has not fallen totally off DOJ’s radar.) It continued:

The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s title III requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities.

Additionally, the Department has consistently taken the position that the absence of a specific regulation does not serve as a basis for noncompliance with a statute’s requirements.

These statements are not surprising, as DOJ (granted, under the previous Administration) has made them on other occasions.  But here’s the part of the letter that is helpful for businesses:

Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.

(emphasis added). The fact that public accommodations have “flexibility” in how to comply with the ADA’s effective communication requirement has been lost in the past eight years, even though DOJ made this point in its 2010 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for websites.  In that document, DOJ stated that a 24/7 staffed telephone line could provide a compliant alternative to an accessible website.  The few courts to have considered this argument in the context of an early motion to dismiss have recognized its legitimacy, but have allowed cases to move forward into discovery on this and other issues.  There have been no decisions on the merits addressing the viability of having a 24/7 telephone option in lieu of an accessible website.

The statement that “noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA” is new and significant.  It is a recognition that a website may be accessible and usable by the blind without being fully compliant with the privately developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 or 2.1.  The statement confirms what some courts have said so far:  That the operative legal question in a website accessibility lawsuit is not whether the website conforms with WCAG, but whether persons with disabilities are able to access to a public accommodation’s goods, services, and benefits through the website, or some alternative fashion.

In response to the members’ concern about the proliferation of website litigation lawsuits, DOJ said:  “Given Congress’ ability to provide greater clarity through the legislative process, we look forward to working with you to continue these efforts.”  DOJ is essentially putting the ball back in the Congressional court, where little is likely to happen.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey.