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: 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 Synopsis: Fighting a web accessibility lawsuit could invite DOJ’s intervention, as did a Florida retailer’s recent Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

Fighting a website accessibility lawsuit is very tempting to many frustrated businesses, but can be a risky decision. One such risk – Department of Justice intervention in the lawsuit – came to fruition for one such business on Monday in Gil v. Winn Dixie, when the DOJ filed a Statement of Interest in the case pending in the Southern District of Florida.

In the lawsuit, Gil alleged that he attempted to access the goods and services available on the Winn-Dixie website, but was unable to do so using his screen reader technology or any other technology provided on the Winn-Dixie website. Accordingly, he claimed the website is inaccessible in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Triggering the DOJ’s somewhat unexpected involvement in this prolific plaintiff’s (by our count, as of October 20, 2016, Gil’s attorney had filed 43% of the 244 federal website accessibility cases filed this year) lawsuit was Winn-Dixie filing a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.  The DOJ states that Winn-Dixie admitted in the Motion that, through its website, patrons can order prescription refills to be picked up at the store pharmacy; search for nearby stores; and gather information on store hours, products, and services. Winn-Dixie argued that it has “no obligation under the ADA to ensure that Mr. Gil and other blind patrons can access these and other services and advantages offered through its website” because under the Eleventh Circuit law, only physical locations are subject to Title III of the ADA. The DOJ could not stand by and let this position go unchallenged:

“Because Winn-Dixie Stores’ argument cannot be squared with the plain language of the statute, the regulations, or with federal case law addressing this issue, the United States respectfully submits this Statement of Interest to clarify public accommodations’ longstanding obligation to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not excluded, denied services, or treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services, such as accessible electronic technology. This obligation means that websites of places of public accommodation, such as grocery stores, must be accessible to people who are blind, unless the public accommodation can demonstrate that doing so would result in a fundamental alteration or undue burden.”

DOJ’s authority is the ADA’s requirement that public accommodations provide auxiliary aids and services – including accessible electronic information technology – at no extra charge to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities, unless it would result in a fundamental alteration or undue burden.

In response to Winn-Dixie’s position that Title III applies only to its physical location. DOJ cited the language of the ADA which says that “Title III applies to discrimination in the goods and services ‘of’ a place of public accommodation, rather than being limited to those goods and services provided ‘at’ or ‘in’ a place of public accommodation.”  DOJ also argued Title III’s application to the website at issue is consistent with every other court decision to have addressed the coverage of websites with a nexus to brick and mortar locations. DOJ went on to state its view that even websites with no nexus to a brick and mortar location are also covered under Title III of the ADA – a position that has been explicitly rejected by the Ninth Circuit.

Coming on the heels of the DOJ’s intervention in the MIT and Harvard cases, and one retailer’s loss on summary judgment when fighting a web accessibility lawsuit in Colorado Bags N’ Baggage, this case demonstrates that litigating a website accessibility case has broader implications than just winning or losing on the merits.  Few businesses want the DOJ inquiring into their ADA Title III compliance practices, of which websites are only a part.

Edited by Minh Vu.