Seyfarth Synopsis:  Plaintiffs secure a second judgment in a federal website accessibility lawsuit while most of the others successfully fended off motions to dismiss. 

2018 has been a bad year for most businesses that have chosen to fight website accessibility cases filed under Title III of the ADA.  Plaintiffs filing in federal court secured their second judgment on the merits in a website accessibility lawsuit, bringing the federal court judgment score to 2-0 in their favor.  Additionally, in twenty-one cases where defendants filed early motions to dismiss, judges have allowed eleven to move forward.  While a forty percent dismissal rate doesn’t seem bad, most of the cases that were dismissed had a common set of unique facts that most defendants don’t have. Below is a rundown of the most noteworthy 2018 cases and trends.

At the end of August, Southern District of Florida Judge Marcia Cooke issued the second judgment on the merits in a federal court website accessibility lawsuit and it was in favor of the plaintiff.  (The first judgment was in the Winn Dixie case after a bench trial.)  Judge Cooke held on summary judgment that retailer GNC’s website violated the ADA because the evidence in the record “suggests that the Website is inaccessible.”  The court cited to the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony and automated test results to reach this conclusion, and excluded the testimony of the GNC’s expert based on his lack of qualifications.  Judge Cooke refused to order a remedy at the summary judgment phase, but said that she found “highly persuasive the number of cases adopting WCAG 2.0 Success Level AA as the appropriate standard to measure accessibility.”

In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a prior private settlement of a website accessibility lawsuit in which the defendant had made a commitment to make its website more accessible did not moot a subsequent lawsuit brought by another plaintiff against the same defendant.  The Court reasoned that the website remediation work was not yet complete, and the second plaintiff had sought other relief that was not addressed by the settlement.  The Court also noted that if the defendant failed to comply with its settlement obligations, the second plaintiff would have no recourse since it was not a party to the prior settlement agreement.

In July, the Eleventh Circuit became the second federal appellate court to explicitly address whether the ADA covers websites.  The Court found that the plaintiff had stated an ADA claim against the defendant because the alleged barriers on its website prevented him from accessing the goods and services of its stores.  Specifically, the blind plaintiff alleged that he could not access the store locator function or purchase a gift card online using his screen reader software.  This case does have a silver-lining for defendants with web-only businesses though:  The Eleventh Circuit’s analysis followed prior precedent holding that a public accommodation is a physical place, and plaintiffs seeking to bring ADA claims about inaccessible websites must show that a barrier on the website prevented them from enjoying the goods and services of that physical place.  This puts the Eleventh Circuit mostly in line with the Ninth Circuit which has held that websites with no nexus to a physical place are not covered by the ADA, and is the only other federal appellate court to have ruled on the issue.

In eleven other decisions, district court judges in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and Michigan allowed website accessibility cases to move forward into discovery, rejecting defendants’ requests for early dismissal.  In most of these cases, the judges rejected the arguments that requiring businesses to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities in the absence of legal standards or regulations is a denial of due process, and that courts should not address website accessibility claims until the Department of Justice issues regulations.

In August, Judge Schwab of the Western District of Pennsylvania issued a pointed decision against a retailer because he found the aggressive tactics of its defense lawyer to constitute bad faith.  Specifically, after receiving a demand letter from the plaintiffs who later filed in Pennsylvania, the retailer filed a pre-emptive lawsuit in Utah against the plaintiffs seeking declaratory relief concerning their website-related obligations under the ADA, and asserting state law claims of negligent representation, fraud, fraudulent non-disclosure, and civil conspiracy.  When the plaintiffs then filed their lawsuit in Pennsylvania, the retailer filed a motion to dismiss based on, among other things, the “first filed” rule which gives the court in the later filed action discretion to dismiss the latter case to avoid duplicative litigation and promote judicial comity.  Judge Schwab said he did not have to apply the “first filed” rule where there was evidence of bad faith by defense counsel, and also said he would consider sanctions if defense counsel tried this forum-shopping tactic again in future cases.  Judge Schwab further held that the ADA covers websites and allowed the case to move forward in Pennsylvania.  Meanwhile, the lawsuit in Utah is still pending after the defense attorney in question withdrew from the case and the retailer filed a First Amended Complaint.

The positive decisions for defendants this year have come from judges in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio.   Judges in Virginia and Ohio dismissed six lawsuits against credit unions about their allegedly inaccessible websites because the plaintiff was not eligible to join the defendant credit unions.  These are fairly unique facts that most defendants defending website accessibility suits will not have, however.

There were four pro-defendant rulings in Florida, but one has been reopened because of the Eleventh Circuit’s holding that a prior settlement does not moot a subsequent lawsuit, discussed supra.  In the second Florida case, Judge Gayles of the Southern District of Florida dismissed an ADA lawsuit because the plaintiff had not alleged that barriers on the website impeded his access to a physical place of public accommodation.   In the third case, Judge Presnell of the Middle District of Florida dismissed a case  because the plaintiff had not alleged that he really intended to return to the location and lacked standing.  In the fourth case, Judge Presnell said that “alleging the mere existence of some connection or link between the website and the physical location is not sufficient.”  Judge Presnell distinguished “an inability to use a website to gain information about a physical location” versus “an ability to use a website that impedes access to enjoy a physical location” and said the former is not sufficient to state a claim.  The judge dismissed the case because the plaintiff’s allegations were about obtaining information, not impeding access.

The takeaway from these recent decisions is that — while the defense strategy for every website accessibility lawsuit must be evaluated on its own set of facts — most courts are not willing to dismiss these cases early except in limited circumstances.  Thus, defendants looking to fight must be prepared to go through discovery and at least summary judgment, if not trial.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The first trial under the ADA about the accessibility of a public accommodation’s website took place last week in the Southern District of Florida.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Robert Scola presided over — to the best of our knowledge — the first trial in the history of the ADA about the accessibility of a public accommodation’s website in the case captioned Gil v. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc.  According to the court’s docket, the two-day trial consisted of testimony by the plaintiff, plaintiff’s website accessibility expert, and a corporate representative from Winn Dixie.  No expert testified on behalf of Winn Dixie.  The matter is now “under advisement” of the Court.

To avoid trial, Winn Dixie had filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings earlier in the case asking the court to dismiss the case on the theory that a website is not a public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA.  As we reported, Judge Scola rejected this argument holding that the plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts that, if proven at trial, would establish a “nexus” between Winn Dixie’s physical store and its website that would place the website within the ADA’s reach.

Stay tuned for Judge Scola’s decision.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey.

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.

By Minh N. Vu

On June 22, we reported on the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts’ ruling that Netflix’s video streaming website is a “place of public accommodation” covered under Title III of the ADA, even though the website has no nexus to a physical place.  This ruling was not surprising given First Circuit precedent that dictated the district court’s decision.  The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California reached the opposite conclusion this month in  Cullen v. Netflix, Inc.  Following Ninth Circuit precedent, the California federal court held that a “place of public accommodation” must be an “actual physical place.”  It found that a video streaming website is not an actual physical place and therefore is not covered by the ADA.

Although Cullen had only asserted claims under California law and not the ADA, the court first analyzed whether the ADA covered the website because both California’s Unruh Act (Unruh Act) and Disabled Persons Act (DPA) state that a violation of the ADA is also a violation of the Unruh Act and DPA.  Having determined that there was no violation of the ADA, the court next analyzed whether the video streaming website’s lack of captioning nonetheless constituted violations of these California statutes. 

The court found that under the Unruh Act, a plaintiff must prove “intentional discrimination” based on allegations of “willful, affirmative misconduct.”  Allegations of Netflix’s failure to caption all its streaming videos were not enough, in the court’s view, to establish intentional discrimination, particularly in light of its ongoing and expanding effort to affirmatively add captions to its video streaming library.  The court granted Cullen leave to amend the complaint to add allegations of intentional discrimination. 

The court held that to establish a DPA claim that is independent of the ADA, a plaintiff would have to make “a showing that accessibility regulations promulgated under California law exceed those set by the ADA.”  Since Cullen had not alleged a violation of any such regulations, the court gave Cullen leave to amend his complaint to correct this deficiency.

By Minh N. Vu

For more than a decade, courts have struggled with the question of whether the ADA’s coverage of twelve “places of public accommodation” (e.g., places of lodging, entertainment, retailers, restaurants, service establishments) is limited to physical places, or whether they can be virtual.  The answer to this question dictates whether virtual places, such as websites, are covered by Title III of the ADA, and therefore must be accessible to individuals with disabilities.  If accessibility is required, businesses must, among many other things, ensure that audio content is communicated to deaf users in some effective manner (e.g., captioning, transcripts) and that visual content can be read by screen readers used by blind readers.

In 2006, federal District Court Judge Marilyn Patel in San Francisco avoided answering the question directly by holding that Target’s retail website is a covered “place of public accommodation” because there was a “nexus” between the website and Target’s brick and mortar stores.  This week, federal Massachusetts District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor pushed the envelope one step further in National Association for the Deaf v. Netflix (June 19, 2012) by holding that Netflix’s web only video streaming business, “Watch Instantly,” is a “place of public accommodation” covered under Title III of the ADA. 

The decision is not entirely surprising.  In 1994, the First Circuit held in Carparts Distribution Center v. Automotive Wholesaler’s Association of New England, that the phrase “place of public accommodation” is not limited to physical places.  The Court allowed an ADA Title III claim to proceed against an insurance plan that provided its benefits through the employer and had no physical place of business patronized by customers. 

That said, the extension of this concept to include all websites of public accommodations regardless of whether the business has a physical presence has a much greater impact.  Essentially every public accommodation business in the world that has a website that can be accessed by customers in the United States and its Territories might be covered under Title III of the ADA.  What would happen if the United States and other countries adopted conflicting technical standards for an “accessible” website?  As with many other areas of the ADA (e.g., pool lifts), the lawyers and consultants will benefit greatly from the complicated issues that will arise.  It may be time for Congress to step in to deal with these issues now in a certain and sensible fashion rather than allowing the law to develop in piecemeal fashion in the courts.    

Further complicating matters is the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has yet to issue regulations setting technical standards for accessible public accommodations websites.  Despite the lack of standards, the DOJ has made clear that it expects websites to be “accessible” — whatever this might mean. Most businesses seeking to make their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities have adopted WCAG 2.0, a standard developed by a private group called the Worldwide Web Consortium.  The DOJ has signaled in an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for website accessibility standards that it is considering adopting WCAG 2.0 as the legal standard.  However, because making websites comply with this standard can cost millions of dollars, many businesses understandably want a definitive legal standard to be in place before investing that kind of money.  Businesses are increasingly caught between a rock and a hard place:  Adopt a standard that could change before it becomes legally binding, or risk exposure to class action lawsuits that could cost millions of dollars.  The Netflix decision may well tip the scale in favor of adopting WCAG 2.0 now for many businesses with and without physical locations. 

The San Francisco Chronicle also published an interesting article on the Netflix decision.  For more interesting commentary on this decision, see this article from the Cato Institute.