Seyfarth Synopsis: The World Wide Web Consortium just published an expanded version of the WCAG to add 17 more requirements to address new technologies and other digital barriers for individuals with disabilities.

On June 5, the private body of web accessibility experts called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published its update to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, aptly named the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level 2.1.

The WCAG 2.1 is an extension of the WCAG 2.0 which the W3C issued in 2008. In recent years, WCAG 2.0 AA has become the generally-accepted set of technical requirements for making websites, mobile apps, and other digital content accessible to people with disabilities. WCAG 2.0 AA is the legal standard for the primary websites of airline carriers as well as the websites of federal agencies.

Four years in the making, WCAG 2.1 “fills gaps” in WCAG 2.0 by adding 17 additional success criteria to address additional accessibility barriers. The updates are mainly related to mobile devices (to keep up with significant technological changes since 2008), disabilities that affect vision (such as colorblindness, low vision; and criteria addressing text spacing and non-text color contrast), and disabilities that affect cognitive function (such as attention deficit disorder and age-related cognitive decline; and criteria addressing timeouts and animations from interactions for seizures and physical reactions). The W3C designed 2.1 to apply broadly to different web technologies now and in the future, and to be testable with a combination of automated testing and human evaluation. The W3C provides an informative introduction to WCAG here.

According to the W3C:

“Following these guidelines will make content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including accommodations for blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and combinations of these, and some accommodation for learning disabilities and cognitive limitations; but will not address every user need for people with these disabilities. These guidelines address accessibility of web content on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. Following these guidelines will also often make Web content more usable to users in general.”

The WCAG Level 2.0 AA has been widely considered the de facto standard for website accessibility in the United States, even though the Department of Justice has not adopted it into its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations applicable to public accommodations.  The W3C’s publication of WCAG 2.1 does not change that equation; it merely adds additional elements for companies to address in making their websites accessible. 2.1 builds on 2.0, and will still follow the A, AA, and AAA conformance levels. The few court decisions that have issued an order requiring companies to conform their websites to a standard for accessibility have used WCAG 2.0 AA.  Given the rather incremental changes in 2.1, we expect WCAG 2.1 AA to eventually be the new “de facto” standard, but do not expect courts to require websites that already conform to 2.0 AA to meet all 2.1 AA standards overnight.

Further out on the horizon is the W3C’s Silver initiative, which we hear will reimagine the accessibility guidelines completely.  However, there’s no need to worry about that yet.

On May 21, a California state court in Los Angeles held on summary judgment that the Whisper Lounge restaurant violated California’s Unruh Act by having a website that could not be used by a blind person with a screen reader, and ordered the restaurant to make its website comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level 2.0 AA.  The court also ordered the restaurant to pay $4,000 statutory damages.  This is the second decision by a California state court on the merits of a website accessibility case.  The first decision concerned the Bags n’ Baggage website.  In 2017, a Florida federal judge conducted the first trial in a website accessibility case against Winn Dixie and held that the grocer’s website violated the ADA because it was not accessible to the blind plaintiff, and ordered Winn Dixie to make its website conform to WCAG 2.0 AA.

The court in the Whisper Lounge case rejected – as most courts on similar facts have – the restaurant’s argument that the website is not a place of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The court found that the restaurant’s website “falls within the category of ‘services….privileges, advantages, or accommodations of’ a restaurant, which is a place of public accommodation under the ADA.”

Next, the court noted that the restaurant presented no evidence in opposition to the plaintiff’s showing that the website was inaccessible on February 20, 2017 – the date the plaintiff said she attempted to use the website.  The restaurant only submitted a declaration stating that the declarant was generally able to use the screen reader NVDA on the website from 2014 through 2017, without addressing the specific barriers the plaintiff said prevented her from using the website.

The restaurant also argued that it provided access to the information on its website by having a telephone number and email.  The Court rejected this argument as well, finding that the provision of a phone number and email does not provide “equal enjoyment of the website”, as the ADA requires, but instead imposes a burden on the visually impaired to wait for a response via email or call during business hours rather than have immediate access like sighted customers.  Thus, the court reasoned, the email and telephone number do not provide effective communication “in a timely manner” nor protect the independence of the visually impaired.  The court did not say whether a toll-free number that is staffed 24-hour a day would have yielded a different outcome.

Finally, the Court rejected the restaurant’s argument that the WCAG 2.0 AA is not yet a legal requirement, finding that the Complaint did not seek to hold the restaurant liable for violating the WCAG 2.0 AA.  Rather, the Complaint alleged that the website discriminated against the plaintiff by being inaccessible and sought an injunction to require the restaurant to make its website accessible to the blind.  The Court also rejected the restaurant’s arguments that requiring it to have an accessible website violated due process and the court should wait until the Department of Justice issues regulations addressing website accessibility.  The Court noted that the fact that the restaurant was redesigning its website did not render the case moot because the restaurant did not establish that “subsequent events make it absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.”

The decision does have a silver lining for the defense bar.  The Court noted that the plaintiff was entitled to only $4,000 in damages under the Unruh Act, which provides for a minimum of $4,000 in statutory damages for each incident of discrimination.  The court held that plaintiff’s repeated visits to the same inaccessible website did not establish separate offenses for purposes of calculating damages.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  A Missouri federal judge orders a theatre to provide, upon request, captioning services for the deaf for all theatrical performances.

A federal judge in Missouri recently ordered a 4500-seat indoor theatre to provide open or closed captioning for all theatrical performances upon request with two weeks’ notice, in a lawsuit brought by deaf patrons and advocacy organizations.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri initially offered no captioning services of any kind for its theatre productions. After the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit, the theater agreed to provide captioning on a handheld device for one prescheduled Broadway-style performance per production (usually on a Saturday matinee), if it receives a request for captioning two weeks before the show. The theatre provided stands for the devices only at designated accessible seats because the fire marshal considered them to be a fire hazard. The plaintiffs maintained that captioning should be available for all shows, and that the theatre should provide stands for the handheld devices at all seats, not just accessible seats. They also sought an injunction requiring the theatre to (a) publicize the availability of captioning; (b) provide a means to request captioning; and (c) provide a method for people to purchase tickets by non-telephonic means, including e-mail.

The judge agreed with the plaintiffs on every issue but one. The judge held that providing captioning for only one show per Broadway-style production denied plaintiffs the equal opportunity to participate in the theatre’s performances because it limited their ability to choose from a number of different performances that were available to non-disabled patrons. The court also found that the theatre had failed to meet its obligation to provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication with the plaintiff. The theatre did not attempt to argue that providing captioning for all performances upon request would be an undue burden or fundamental alteration of its performances. Accordingly, the court ordered the theatre to provide captioning for all theatrical performances upon request with two weeks’ notice. The court also – with no discussion – ordered the theatre to publicize the availability of captioning, provide a means to request captioning, and provide a method of buying tickets through non-telephonic means, including e-mail. The court did not require the theatre to provide stands for the captioning devices at non-accessible seats, due to fire safety concerns.

The decision serves as a reminder that Title III of the ADA requires public accommodations to provide auxiliary aids and services to individuals with disabilities to ensure effective communication with them, unless doing so imposes an undue burden or fundamentally alters the nature of the goods and services provided. Organizers of events that are open to the public should keep this in mind and have a plan for ensuring effective communication for participants and spectators with different types of disabilities, as there have been a number of lawsuits filed in the past several years over the lack of captioning for live events.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Plaintiffs who pursued numerous web accessibility actions under Title III of the ADA are now using website accessibility to test the limits of a different area of law – employment law – California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Over the past few years, we have frequently written about the proliferation of demand letters and lawsuits alleging that a business denied a usually blind or vision-impaired individual access to its goods and services because the business’ website was not accessible, in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state laws. One firm that pursued many web accessibility actions under Title III and California’s Unruh Act (including a success in the Bags N’ Baggage case decided in plaintiff’s favor by a California state court) is now going after employers.  In recent demand letters and lawsuits, they are alleging that employment websites are not accessible to blind job seekers, in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), California’s corollary to Title I of the ADA.

While this blog, and Seyfarth’s Disability Access Team, are focused on disability access issues affecting places of public accommodation that provide goods and services to the general public (not employees, though many of our team members are employment specialists as well), this emerging litigation trend is worthy of our discussion here because it is an extension of the tsunami of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits pursued under Title III, involving the same technological and other issues, as well as the same plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ attorneys.  But there is one big difference – the legal standard that applies to employment disability discrimination claims is different from the standard applied to disability discrimination claims brought against public accommodations. Title III is unique from other anti-discrimination statutes in that it requires (with exceptions) businesses take affirmative, proactive measures to ensure individuals with disabilities are afforded equal access to their goods and services. FEHA prohibits discrimination against individuals in employment.  It requires employers, upon notice that an employee or applicant for employment requires a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of his or her job, or to apply for employment, to engage in the interactive process to devise such a reasonable accommodation.  The employer does not need to provide the employee or applicant’s requested accommodation as long as the accommodation provided is effective.

In the cases filed thus far, such as those by Dominic Martin, Roy Rios, and Abelardo Martinez in Orange County and San Diego Superior Courts in California last week, the plaintiffs argue that they are blind residents of California who want to enter the workforce, attempted to apply using the defendant’s online application, but could not because it was inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. They claim the WAVE tool confirmed the website’s inaccessibility (an automated tool like WAVE, while useful, cannot be relied upon to determine whether a website is accessible or not, let alone useable by an individual with a disability).  In these lawsuits, the plaintiffs claim that they twice asked the defendant to remove the barriers and were ignored.  Plaintiffs also claim that removing the barriers would take only a few hours (which anyone who has worked in the website accessibility space knows is rarely if ever possible).  Plaintiffs allege these requests that defendant remove the barriers were requests for reasonable accommodation, though they were sent by the plaintiff’s attorney and not the actual individual seeking employment; thus possibly perceived as litigation demand letters rather than legitimate requests for reasonable accommodation.  The plaintiffs allege that the companies did not respond and that they have a policy to deny disabled individuals equal employment by refusing to remove the barriers on the website.  Each plaintiff alleges only a single legal claim for violation of FEHA, even expressly noting he is not asserting claims for violation of any federal law or regulation.

Will these claims find any success in the courts under the applicable law?  We will be watching.  In the meantime, businesses that have been focusing efforts on consumer-facing websites to mitigate risk under Title III should be aware of this new trend (if you have not already received such a letter).

Edited by: Minh N. Vu.

Seyfarth Shaw Synopsis: Effective December 18, 2017, New York became the latest state to enact a law cracking down on fake service animals.

New York recently joined an increasing number of states that have passed laws aimed at curbing abuse of laws and regulations designed to ensure that individuals with disabilities can be accompanied by their service animals in places of public accommodation and other settings. On December 18, 2017, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that, among other things, makes it unlawful to knowingly apply a false or improper identification tag designating a service, emotional support, or therapy dog. In signing the bill, Gov. Cuomo noted an increasingly important role therapy dogs play in supporting individuals with diseases such as anxiety and PTSD, and also their role in assisting the ill and elderly. Authority to enforce the new law is vested with each municipality’s dog control officer. Violators will face a fine of up to $100, up to 15 days of jail time, or both.

Service animal registrations, vests, and any other means which identify service animals do not have any legal significance, according to the DOJ, and may be easily obtained online. And, as we have previously reported, businesses may only ask a handful of permitted questions to assess whether they must admit a purported service animal. Businesses should be aware of and train their employees to comply with the ADA’s, and any applicable state and local laws’, service animal requirements. Although it may be tempting to undertake more aggressive measures to ferret out cases of service animal fraud, new laws in places like New York do not relieve businesses of their federal obligations to adhere to a protocol for addressing service animal issues. Under DOJ guidance, businesses cannot, for example, ask about the nature of a person’s disability who is accompanied by a purported service animal, or ask for a demonstration of what tasks the animal performs. Therefore, businesses should nonetheless remain vigilant in complying with their obligations to ensure access for those individuals with a genuine need for these animals.

Other states such as Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia have similar laws or regulations prohibiting the misrepresentation of service animals. This trend has recently made national news. These state laws will hopefully discourage those who seek to take advantage of disability laws for an improper purpose, and empower authorities in dealing appropriately with cases of abuse.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  2017 saw an unprecedented number of website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal and state courts, and few courts willing to grant early motions to dismiss.

Plaintiffs were very busy in 2017 filing ADA Title III lawsuits alleging that public accommodations’ websites are not accessible to individuals with disabilities. Here is our brief recap of the 2017 website accessibility lawsuit numbers, major developments, and our thoughts for 2018.

  • In 2017, plaintiffs filed at least 814 federal lawsuits about allegedly inaccessible websites, including a number of putative class actions. We arrived at this number by searching for lawsuits with certain key terms and then manually reviewing the results to remove any cases that did not concern an allegedly inaccessible website.  Our numbers are conservative, as it is very likely that not every website accessibility lawsuit’s description – upon which we based our search – contained our search terms. This caveat applies to all of the data set forth below.
  • Of the 814 federal cases, New York and Florida led the way with more than 335 and 325 cases, respectively. Surprisingly, California only had nine new website accessibility lawsuits in 2017, most likely because plaintiffs filed in state court.  Federal courts in Arizona (6), Georgia (9), Illinois (10), Massachusetts (15), New Hampshire (2), Michigan (1), New Jersey (4), Ohio (8), Pennsylvania (58), Puerto Rico (1), Texas (7), and Virginia (24) also had their share of website accessibility lawsuits.
  • In California state courts, plaintiffs filed at least 115 website accessibility lawsuits in 2017 under the state’s non-discrimination laws. We compiled this data based on searches we performed for lawsuits by four blind plaintiffs represented by two California law firms.
  • In New York state courts, plaintiffs filed at least six website accessibility lawsuits in 2017. All were putative class actions.
  • Defendants in at least 13 federal website accessibility cases filed motions to dismiss or for summary judgment where there were no unusual circumstances like a prior court order or settlement agreement that obligated the defendant to make its website accessible. The courts denied all but two of those motions and let the cases proceed to discovery.
    • In one case where the defendant, Bang & Olfusen, won its motion to dismiss, the court noted that the plaintiff had failed to plead a nexus between the physical place of public accommodation and the website in question. In the other case, the court dismissed the claims made against Domino’s because requiring the defendant to comply with a set of web accessibility guidelines that are not yet law would violate due process principles.  The Domino’s decision is on appeal and will be reviewed by the Ninth Circuit in 2018.  Our post about these cases is here.
    • In the 11 cases where the federal judges refused to dismiss website accessibility claims and allowed the cases proceed to discovery, the defendants had unsuccessfully argued that the principles or due process and the doctrine of primary jurisdiction should be the basis for dismissal. One of our posts discussing some of these decisions is here.
    • In three decisions, the courts were open to the concept that providing telephonic access to the goods and services offered at the public accommodation may satisfy the ADA, but they refused to dismiss the cases at the outset on this basis.
  • The first trial in a website accessibility lawsuit took place in 2017. Florida U.S. District Judge Scola presided over this bench trial and concluded that grocer Winn Dixie had violated Title III of the ADA by having an inaccessible website.  Judge Scola also found that the $250,000 cost to remediate Winn Dixie’s website was not an “undue burden” and ordered Winn Dixie to make its website conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA (WCAG 2.0 AA).
  • Three defendants were able to dismiss website access lawsuits early because they had already entered into consent decree or settlement agreements with previous plaintiffs which required them to make their websites conform to the WCAG 2.0 within a specified amount of time. That said, not all courts agree that a prior settlement — as opposed to a binding judgment or court order — can be the basis for a dismissal.
  • The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) rulemaking to create new website accessibility regulations is now officially dead, as we recently blogged. The lack of clear rules will lead to more litigation and inconsistent judicially-made law.  In fact, it appears that the DOJ will not be issuing any new regulations under Title III of the ADA about any subject, according to the agency’s December 26 announcement in the Federal Register repealing all pending ADA Title III rulemakings.

What’s in store for 2018? If the Ninth Circuit upholds the Domino’s district court’s dismissal on due process grounds, the number of California website accessibility lawsuits in federal court may go down dramatically.  Even if that occurs, we see no end to the website accessibility lawsuit surge elsewhere and expect that new plaintiffs’ firms will continue to enter the scene.  While the current administration’s DOJ is not likely to push the website accessibility agenda, its inaction will not stop the lawsuits.  Only an amendment to the ADA can do that, which we believe is highly unlikely.  Thus, the best risk mitigation effort for covered entities is still to make their websites accessible as soon as possible, with the assistance of ADA Title III legal counsel experienced in website accessibility issues and reputable digital accessibility consultants.

Edited by Kristina Launey

Seyfarth Synopsis: Florida’s recently-enacted House Bill 727 gives businesses a way to deter serial plaintiffs from suing them in Florida courts.

Watching businesses deal with the at least 1,663 ADA Title III access suits filed in federal court in Florida in 2016 motivated Florida legislators to take action with House Bill 727 (“HB 727”) which went into effect on July 1, 2017. One of bill’s sponsors, Rep. Tom Leek, claims that “[t]his law give the ADA back to the people for whom it was written, Americans with disabilities.” We are not quite so optimistic.

Under HB 727, a business that hires a “qualified expert” to inspect its premises to either verify conformity with ADA facilities access requirements, or to develop a compliance plan, can have that information considered in a lawsuit filed in a court within the state of Florida, provided that the certificate of conformity or remediation plan has been filed with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (the “DBPR”). The court “must consider” any such remediation plan or certificate of conformity “and determine[s] if the plaintiff’s complaint was filed in good faith and if the plaintiff is entitled to attorney fees and costs.”

Here’s how it would work: An owner of a place of public accommodation pays a “qualified expert” to inspect its premises. If the expert concludes that the facility complies with the ADA, the business can submit a “certificate of conformity” to the DBPR stating that the premises conforms to Title III.  Certificates of conformity are valid for three years and must include: the date that the premises was inspected, the name of the “qualified expert,” proof of the expert’s qualifications, and a statement from the qualified expert attesting that the information contained in the certificate is complete and accurate.

Businesses whose facilities do not fully comply with the ADA can submit a remediation plan to the DBPR indicating that the facility intends to conform with ADA requirements within a reasonable amount of time that does not exceed 10 years. In addition to the requirements applicable to the certificate of conformity, the remediation plan must include the specific remedial measures that the place of public accommodation will undertake, and the anticipated date of completion.

To be a “qualified expert,” one must be a building code inspector, architect, engineer, contractor, or “person who has prepared a remediation plan related to a claim under Title III … that has been accepted by a federal court in a settlement agreement or court proceeding, or who has been qualified as an expert in Title III … by a federal court.” This means that an experienced defense attorney who has prepared a remediation plan for a court approved settlement could be considered a “qualified expert.”

HB 727 is not likely to have much impact on the number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in Florida for several reasons. First, the law will likely only apply to ADA lawsuits filed in state court, and most ADA Title III lawsuits are filed in federal court. This is because under the Supremacy Clause of the United States constitution, Florida state’s requirement that a court must consider remediation plans and certifications of conformity are likely preempted by the ADA and will not be applied to a plaintiff’s federal lawsuit. Second, given that HB 727 does not explicitly render an access lawsuit moot just because there is a remediation plan or certificate of conformity on file, businesses will be reluctant to publicize access barriers in their facilities in a publicly-filed document, which plaintiffs can still use to sue them. Third, having a court consider the existence of a remediation plan or certificate of conformity in deciding whether to award a plaintiff attorneys’ fees is not likely to deter plaintiffs who know that defendant businesses will need to spend a lot of money litigating before a court ever considers either of these documents.  Fourth, HB 727 does nothing to address the explosion of website access litigation under the ADA in Florida which has been a key driver in the increased number of lawsuits in the past 12 months. Indeed, as we have previously reported (here and here), California has similar legislation to HB 727, yet California still had approximately 2,468 ADA Title III filings in federal court in 2016 and continues, along with Florida, to be a hotbed for ADA Title III litigation.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The number of federal lawsuits alleging inaccessible websites continues to increase, along with the number of law firms filing them.  Businesses remain well-advised to seek advice from counsel experienced in website accessibility to manage risk.

Different year, same news: Website accessibility lawsuits show no signs of slowing down. In fact, with the DOJ’s recent placement of website regulations on the “inactive list”, litigation will likely only continue. As we have written about extensively, most recently here, court orders are issuing more and more from courts across the country, slowly creating a body of jurisprudence around this issue; though the rulings differ vastly by court and even judge.

The number of website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal court since the beginning of 2015 has surged to at least 751 as of August 15, 2017, with at least 432 of those filed in just the first eight and a half months of 2017—well over the 262 lawsuits that were filed in all of 2015 and 2016. We say “at least” because there is no easy way to capture every website accessibility lawsuit filed in federal court. Thus, the actual numbers are likely higher than we can report with certainty. Our numbers also do not include the many cases filed in state courts nor demand letters that resolve without ever turning into lawsuits.

Number of federal website accessibility lawsuits by year from January 2015 to August 15, 2017: 2015 (57), 2016 (262), 2017 (432). There are at least this many lawsuits.

Retailers remain the most popular targets, followed by restaurant and hospitality companies.

Number of federal website lawsuits by industry from January 2015 to August 15, 2017: Academic (7), Entertainment (27), Financial (17), Hospitality (57), Medical (42), Personal Services (18), Restaurant (186), Retail (353), Vehicle Manufacturer (13), Other (22). There are at least this many lawsuits.

Although California continues to have the highest number of federal ADA title III lawsuits generally, Florida (385), New York (170) and Pennsylvania (85) have overtaken California with respect to the number of federal website accessibility lawsuits.

Number of states with the most website lawsuits in federal court as of August 15, 2017: Arizona (7), California (65), Florida (385), Illinois (5), Massachusetts (17), New York (170), Ohio (4), Pennsylvania (85), Texas (4), Washington (5). There are at least this many lawsuits.

These lawsuits are a significant portion of the increase in total ADA Title III lawsuits filed in federal courts this year, which, as of April 2017, was already over 2600 filings in 2017—an 18% increase over the number of federal cases filed in the same time period in 2016.

Edited by Minh N. Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an apparent effort to stop one plaintiff’s lawsuit spree, the Nevada Attorney General moves to intervene in a federal ADA Title III lawsuit arguing that the plaintiff failed to provide notice to the state agency responsible for enforcing Nevada’s antidiscrimination law before filing suit.

On Wednesday, August 9, the Nevada Attorney General filed a motion to intervene in an ADA Title III lawsuit filed by serial plaintiff Kevin Zimmerman who (according the motion) had sued more than 275 Nevada businesses in federal courts in the past seven months.

The motion to intervene argues that Title III of the ADA requires private plaintiffs to – before filing in federal court – provide 30 days’ notice to the state agency responsible for enforcing state laws that prohibit the same type of discriminatory conduct at issue in the federal suit.  The Nevada Attorney General explained that the notice gives the state enforcement agencies an opportunity to conduct their own investigation and take action.  The brief notes that there is an exception to this notice requirement where a plaintiff has actual notice that the defendant does not intend to comply with the law, but Mr. Zimmerman did not plead that he had actual notice of any such intent.  This is an interesting argument that could be a useful defense strategy in some ADA Title III cases, though it has been rejected as the basis for a dispositive ruling by the Ninth Circuit in Botosan v. Paul McNally Realty.

The Nevada Attorney General’s motion to intervene is not the first time that a state attorney general has stepped in to thwart the actions of serial plaintiffs filing accessibility lawsuits.  Last year, the Arizona Attorney General intervened in and secured the dismissal of 1700 cases filed against Arizona businesses under the Arizonians with Disabilities Act (not the ADA), as we reported here.

Stay tuned for more developments in Nevada – a state that only had 6 ADA Title III lawsuits in all of 2016.

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.