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: California will soon have a new law requiring WCAG 2.0 AA compliance for state agencies’ websites by 2019.

On October 14, 2017 California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 434, which will create a new Government Code section 11546.7 and require, beginning July 1, 2019, state agencies and state entities to post on their website home pages a certification that the website complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level AA, or a subsequent version, and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

State agencies have been required, since January 1, 2017 by virtue of 2016 legislation, to comply with Section 508 in developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic or information technology “to improve accessibility of existing technology, and therefore increase the successful employment of individuals with disabilities, particularly blind and visually impaired and deaf and hard-of-hearing persons.” That statute, Government Code 7405, also requires entities that contract with state or local entities for the provision of electronic or information technology or related services to respond to and resolve any complaints regarding accessibility that are brought to the entity’s attention.

The new Government Code section 11546.7 will also require the State’s Director of Technology to create a standard form for each state agency or entity’s chief information officer to use in determining whether its respective website complies with the accessibility standards.

With this legislation, California joins state and municipal entities in other parts of the country that have similar web accessibility requirements for governmental entities and contractors.  This legislation fills a small part of a void the federal Department of Justice has decided for the time being not to fill, when it put its pending regulations that would set an accessibility standard for state and local (as well as private entity) websites on the inactive list.

Edited by: Minh N. Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis: With the recent proliferation of web accessibility demand letters and lawsuits, businesses often ask whether settling a claim with one plaintiff will bar future lawsuits brought by different plaintiffs. One federal judge recently said no.

Plaintiffs Rachel Gniewskowski, R. David New, and Access Now, Inc.—represented by Carlson, Lynch, Kilpela & Sweet—sued retailer Party City in the Western District of Pennsylvania on September 6, 2016, alleging that Party City’s website is not accessible to visually impaired consumers in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  On October 7, 2016 (while the Pennsylvania lawsuit was pending), Party City entered into a confidential settlement agreement with Andres Gomez, who had previously filed a similar lawsuit in Florida.  Both lawsuits contained the same basic set of facts and legal claims, and sought similar relief—modification of the website to make it accessible to, and useable by, individuals with disabilities.

Party City filed a summary judgment motion in the Pennsylvania case, arguing that the Pennsylvania case was barred by the prior settlement under principles of res judicata.  Res judicata applies when three circumstances are present: (1) a final judgment on the merits in a prior suit involving (2) the same parties or their privies, and (3) a subsequent suit based on the same cause of action.  In an order issued on January 27, 2017, the court denied the motion, finding that Party City could not establish the second element.

In its attempt to establish the second element, Party City argued that the Pennsylvania plaintiffs Gniewskowski and New were “adequately represented” in the Florida action by Gomez.  The Court disagreed, finding Gomez did not purport to represent Gniewskowski or New, noting that the “complaint in Gomez’s lawsuit made clear that Gomez brought his lawsuit ‘individually.’” Nor could Party City “point to any ‘procedural protections…in the original action’ that were intended to protect the current plaintiffs’ rights to due process”, such as notice of the prior settlement, or measures the court in the prior litigation took to determine whether the settlement was fair as to absent parties.

The court’s straightforward application of res judicata principles is not surprising, and even less so because there is no indication that Party City had committed to making its website accessible in the confidential settlement agreement—the relief sought in the Pennsylvania case. Public settlement agreements requiring a company to make its website accessible, or a consent decree in which a court orders a company to make its website accessible, are much more likely to deter additional website accessibility lawsuits.  Companies that are under a court order to make their websites accessible have a strong argument that any subsequent ADA Title III suit is moot because the only relief that can be obtained in such a suit—injunctive relief—has already been ordered.  Plaintiffs are also likely to find companies that have made a contractual commitment to making their websites accessible to be less attractive targets because the work may be completed while the second lawsuit is pending, mooting out the claim.  Ultimately, the best deterrence is having a website that is accessible to users with disabilities.  While there is still no legally-prescribed standard for accessibility (nor, with the present Administration’s actions toward regulations does it appear likely one will issue anytime soon), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, 2.0 Levels A and AA are widely used in the industry as the de facto standard.