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: Florida court rules that plaintiff must allege more than being unable to learn about a brick-and-mortar business to state a claim that an allegedly inaccessible website violates the ADA. 

Allegations that an inaccessible website prevents a blind plaintiff from “learning” about a brick-and-mortar location are insufficient to state an ADA claim, according to one recent federal court decision in Florida. In Price v. Everglades College, the plaintiff alleged that he called a private university to learn about the institution, but was directed instead to its website.  While attempting to visit the website, he allegedly discovered that his screen reader software could not access information provided there, and Plaintiff thereafter filed suit under Title III of the ADA.  Defendant filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that Plaintiff had failed to state an ADA claim.

The Court granted the motion. It held that allegations that the plaintiff could not learn about the university were insufficient, and that instead the plaintiff had to plead facts sufficient to demonstrate that the alleged digital barriers prevented him from enjoying access to the university’s brick-and-mortar facilities.  Plaintiff did not allege, for example, that he could not apply to the university, pay tuition, or use the student portal.

Courts in the 11th Circuit have required that a nexus exist between the website at issue and a physical business location (some courts from other Circuits do not follow this approach).  Price clarifies that a plaintiff cannot satisfy this nexus requirement in this jurisdiction by alleging “the mere existence of some connection or link” between the inaccessible website, on one hand, and a brick-and-mortar location, on the other.

The decision is welcome news for businesses barraged by increasing numbers of website accessibility lawsuits in recent months and a challenging litigation landscape in 2018.  The decision is also noteworthy for institutions of higher learning, which have also been targeted in these cases as reported in the national news media.  Decisions such as Price may be helpful in defending serial ADA website lawsuits filed by individuals with only tenuous connections to the businesses and institutions they sue.

Edited by Minh N. Vu and Kristina M. Launey.

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:  A federal judge in the Central District of California has allowed a blind plaintiff to continue his lawsuit about the accessibility of a public accommodation’s website under Title III of the ADA, despite the diametrically opposite views of his Central District colleague.

Within a week after a Florida federal judge handed down a trial verdict finding that Winn Dixie had violated Title III of the ADA by having a website that could not be used by the blind plaintiff, U.S. District Judge John Walter of the Central District of California ruled that blind plaintiff Sean Gorecki could continue his lawsuit against retailer Hobby Lobby about the accessibility of its website.  The retailer had asked the court to dismiss the case on various grounds, all of which were rejected by the judge.  The case will now move forward.

This decision is significant for several reasons:

  • The decision illustrates that two judges in the same United States District Court can have diametrically opposite views on the very same issue. In March of this year, U.S. District Judge James Otero dismissed a lawsuit brought by a blind plaintiff against Domino’s Pizza about its allegedly inaccessible website.  Judge Otero found that Domino’s had met its obligations under the law by providing telephonic access via a customer service hotline, and that requiring Domino’s to have an accessible website at this time would violate its constitutional right to due process.  On the due process point, Judge Otero noted that neither the law nor the regulations require websites to be accessible, and that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had failed to issue regulations on this topic after seven years.  As further evidence that covered entities have not been given fair notice of their obligations under the ADA, he cited the DOJ’s official statements from the beginning of the website rulemaking process that (1) it was considering what legal standard of accessibility to adopt, and (2) telephonic access could be a lawful alternative to having an accessible website.  Based on these due process concerns, Judge Otero invoked the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine which “allows courts to stay proceedings or dismiss a complaint without prejudice pending the resolution of an issue within the special competence of an administrative agency.”
  • In stark contrast, U.S. District Judge John Walter in the Hobby Lobby case rejected the due process argument and held that the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine did not apply. With regard to the due process argument, Judge Walter stated that “[f]or over 20 years, the DOJ has consistently maintained that the ADA applies to private websites that meet the definition of a public accommodation” and that “Hobby Lobby had more than sufficient notice in 2010 to determine that its website must comply with the ADA.”  Judge Walter also held that the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine did not apply because it only applies to cases whose resolution require the “highly specialized expertise” of a federal agency.  Judge Walter found that this case is a “relatively straightforward claim that Hobby Lobby failed to provide disabled individuals full and equal enjoyment of goods and services offered by its physical stores by not maintaining a fully accessible website.”
  • Judge Walter reserved judgment on what Hobby Lobby would have to do to make its website accessible until after a decision on the merits. The Court specifically noted that the plaintiff was not asking for conformance with a specific technical rule such as the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.

Because Judge Walter’s decision was on a motion to dismiss and not a final judgment, Hobby Lobby does not have the right to appeal the decision at this time.  We predict that the case will settle before the court reaches the merits of the case.