Seyfarth Synopsis: In amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department agreed with the Fifth Circuit and defendant Coca-Cola that a vending machine is not a place of public accommodation and that public accommodations can comply with the ADA by providing assistance to customers in lieu of having accessible self-service equipment.

The Supreme Court recently asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to weigh in on whether vending machines are places of public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA.  The Court’s request related to a pending a Petition for Certiorari filed by a blind plaintiff who unsuccessfully sued Coca-Cola for allegedly owning and/or operating vending machines that are not independently usable by the blind.  Both the District Court and the Fifth Circuit had concluded that such machines are not public accommodations under the ADA.

The DOJ’s amicus brief unequivocally stated its position that vending machines are not public accommodations.  The DOJ advanced a number of arguments in support of its position that a vending machine does not fall within any of the 12 categories of businesses that are considered public accommodations under the statute.  Among other things, the DOJ stated that a vending machine is not a “sales establishment” covered by the law but rather a piece of equipment typically found within public accommodations facilities.

The most significant commentary from the DOJ’s brief concerns a public accommodation’s obligations with regard to self-service equipment provided for public use.  The DOJ stated:

the operator of a public accommodation in which the vending machines is located is better suited to determine whether such changes [(i.e. making the vending machines independently accessible by blind users)] are the most efficient means of complying with the ADA.  When buying or leasing vending machines, some business owners may insist upon the inclusion of accessible features.  Others, however, might choose instead to install the machines at locations within their establishments where their employees will be available to assist customers with disabilities.  The business owner is better positioned than the seller or lessor of the machines to determine what method of ensuring accessibility will be most effective at a particular location.

In other words, it is the DOJ’s position that providing assistance to customers with disabilities is a lawful way to provide access in lieu of procuring accessible vending machines.  Presumably this position would extend to all self-service equipment provided for customer use — at least when there are no privacy concerns.  (In 2014, the DOJ had filed a Statement of Interest in a different case involving allegedly inaccessible point-of-sale devices where it took the position that a public accommodation must provide individuals with disabilities independent access to point-of-sale devices which require the entry of Personal Identification Numbers (PINs).)

Also significant was DOJ’s view that the Supreme Court should not grant review of the case in order to address the question of whether online-only businesses are covered by Title III of the ADA.  The DOJ noted that while “questions concerning Title III’s application to non-physical establishments – including websites or digital services – may someday warrant” the Supreme Court’s attention, this case was not the time or place to do so since the plaintiff here encountered the machines in person, not via telephone or internet.  The DOJ’s suggestion that the Court should defer on this issue suggests that the Department may be evaluating its prior position that online-only businesses are covered by the ADA.

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.

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.