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.

This morning, October 12, in sunny Pasadena, California, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument in the Robles v. Dominos case. The main issue on appeal was whether the district court erred in applying the doctrines of primary jurisdiction and due process as the basis for granting Domino’s motion to dismiss Robles’s claims that Dominos violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act due to an inaccessible website. The parties and judges had a lively 30-minute discussion, after which the Court took the matter under submission.

In addition to the main issue on appeal, the parties, amicus counsel, and the judges discussed whether the ADA applies to websites in the first place, whether the website is a communication or a service, alternatives to an accessible website such as telephone, whether this is an effective communication case or not, and why the prior and current Administrations’ DOJ haven’t issued regulations.

Next week we’ll discuss our impressions and implications of this hearing.  Have a great weekend everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Two Florida federal district court judges require websites to have a “nexus” to a physical location for coverage under Title III of the ADA, but a third judge requires more.

Modern smart mobile phone with on line shopping store graphicThe Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Florida, Alabama, and Georgia) has yet to decide whether and to what extent Title III of the ADA applies to websites of public accommodations, but recent rulings from three different federal judges in Florida do provide insight on where the judges in that circuit may draw the lines.

Gil v. Winn DixieIn December 2016, we wrote about the Gil v. Winn Dixie Stores case where a blind plaintiff alleged that Winn Dixie’s website violated Title III of the ADA because it was not accessible to him.  Winn Dixie moved to dismiss the case, arguing that websites are not covered by Title III of the ADA because they are not physical places.  Though not a party to the lawsuit, the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest supporting the plaintiff and expressing its view 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.”  In response, Winn Dixie objected to the DOJ’s involvement and moved to strike the DOJ’s Statement of Interest.

District Court Judge Robert Scola recently denied Winn Dixie’s motion to dismiss the case and to strike the DOJ’s Statement of Interest.  The case is now on its way to a bench trial — the first trial concerning an ADA Title III claim about a website, to our knowledge.  In denying the motion to dismiss, Judge Scola agreed with the DOJ’s analysis that the law guarantees a plaintiff equal access to the services, privileges, and advantages “of” a public accommodation, not just those that are offered “at” a place of accommodation.  Judge Scola noted that “Winn-Dixie’s website is heavily integrated with, and in many ways operates as a gateway to, Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations.”  The court found that allegations concerning the website’s store locator feature and prescription ordering service for in-store pick up, if proven, could establish “nexus between Winn-Dixie’s website and its physical stores.”

Gomez v. J. Lindeberg USA, LLC.  In this case, the defendant defaulted and District Court Judge Kathleen Williams had to determine if, on the basis of the facts alleged in the complaint, serial plaintiff Andrew Gomez was entitled to have a judgment entered in his favor.  The complaint alleged that the plaintiff could not purchase clothing or search for store locations on the defendant retailer’s website because it was not accessible.  Judge Williams concluded that the plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts establish a “nexus between the challenged service and the place of public accommodation,” and entered an injunction requiring the defendant to “undertake immediate remedial measures to make its website readily accessible and usable to people with visual disabilities.” The judge also ordered the defendant to pay plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

Gomez v. Bang & Olufsen.  District Court Judge Joan Lenard held in this case that the plaintiff had failed to state a claim under the ADA because he had not alleged that the website’s alleged inaccessibility impeded his full use and enjoyment of the brick-and-mortar store.  The plaintiff had alleged that he could not shop for items on the website to have them delivered to his home.  Judge Lenard held that the plaintiff failed to claim “an actual (not hypothetical) impediment to the use of Defendant’s retail location.”

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To summarize, two of the three Florida federal judges to have decided whether Title III of the ADA covers websites of public accommodations require a “nexus” between the website and a physical place of business where customers go (in alignment with the Ninth Circuit and precluding suits against web-only businesses), and one requires that the website’s lack of accessibility actually impede a plaintiff’s access to a physical place of business.  All three judges agree that websites with no nexus to a physical place of public accommodation are not covered by the ADA.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey.