Seyfarth Synopsis:  In denying Dave & Buster’s motion to dismiss and for summary judgment, a federal judge said that telephonic access might be an alternative to having an accessible website, but cannot decide until the record is much more developed.

No court has yet decided whether a public accommodation can comply with Title III of the ADA’s equal access mandate by providing telephonic access to the information and services on a website blind people cannot use with a screenreader.  However, last week federal Judge Philip Gutierrez of the Central District of California recognized it as a possibility, while allowing a website accessibility lawsuit against Dave & Buster’s to move forward to discovery.

In Gorecki v. Dave & Buster’s, Dave & Buster’s filed a motion to dismiss and for summary judgment at the outset of the case, arguing that it had complied with the law by providing telephonic access to the information and services on its website.  Specifically, it had placed an “accessibility banner” on its website stating: “If You Are Using A Screen Reader And Are Having Problems Using This Website, please call 1 (888) 300-1515 For Assistance.”  Dave & Buster’s had staffed the line with a “receptionist.”  In response, the court acknowledged that the Department of Justice had stated in 2010 that telephonic access could be a means of complying with law in lieu of having an accessible website.  However, the court found that the plaintiff had raised a genuine dispute as to whether having the phone line and receptionist satisfies the ADA because—among other things—Dave & Buster’s failed to submit evidence that the accessibility banner itself was accessible (i.e., could be read) to screen reader users.  The court concluded that “the record as it stands is insufficient to address compliance, so the court disagrees with D&B that the mere appearance of the phone number on the Website renders Gorecki’s claim moot.”

Our takeaway from this holding is that a defendant seeking to show that it is providing access to the information and services on its website through a telephone line must submit more robust evidence about how that telephonic provides equal access.

The court also rejected Dave & Buster’s three other arguments for dismissal.  First, the court said that holding Dave & Buster’s liable for a Title III violation in the absence of regulations about websites would not violate due process because the DOJ made clear “as early as 1996” that websites are covered under the law, and plaintiff was not advocating for adherence to any particular set of accessibility standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.  Second, the court said dismissal was not appropriate under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction because “a finding of liability regarding the Website’s compliance with the ADA does not require sophisticated technical expertise beyond the ability of the Court.”  These two holdings echo the same or similar holdings by virtually every other court that has considered these issues.  Finally, the court stated that plaintiff did not necessarily have to request an accommodation from Dave & Buster’s before filing suit.

Judge Gutierrez’s decision is the third in which the Manning law firm in Newport Beach, CA has successfully rebuffed motions to dismiss website claims by defendants in federal court.  The firm has appealed to the Ninth Circuit the one unfavorable decision it received in Robles v. Dominos Pizza. The opening brief will is due to be filed this week.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The number of federal lawsuits alleging inaccessible websites continues to increase, along with the number of law firms filing them.  Businesses remain well-advised to seek advice from counsel experienced in website accessibility to manage risk.

Different year, same news: Website accessibility lawsuits show no signs of slowing down. In fact, with the DOJ’s recent placement of website regulations on the “inactive list”, litigation will likely only continue. As we have written about extensively, most recently here, court orders are issuing more and more from courts across the country, slowly creating a body of jurisprudence around this issue; though the rulings differ vastly by court and even judge.

The number of website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal court since the beginning of 2015 has surged to at least 751 as of August 15, 2017, with at least 432 of those filed in just the first eight and a half months of 2017—well over the 262 lawsuits that were filed in all of 2015 and 2016. We say “at least” because there is no easy way to capture every website accessibility lawsuit filed in federal court. Thus, the actual numbers are likely higher than we can report with certainty. Our numbers also do not include the many cases filed in state courts nor demand letters that resolve without ever turning into lawsuits.

Number of federal website accessibility lawsuits by year from January 2015 to August 15, 2017: 2015 (57), 2016 (262), 2017 (432). There are at least this many lawsuits.

Retailers remain the most popular targets, followed by restaurant and hospitality companies.

Number of federal website lawsuits by industry from January 2015 to August 15, 2017: Academic (7), Entertainment (27), Financial (17), Hospitality (57), Medical (42), Personal Services (18), Restaurant (186), Retail (353), Vehicle Manufacturer (13), Other (22). There are at least this many lawsuits.

Although California continues to have the highest number of federal ADA title III lawsuits generally, Florida (385), New York (170) and Pennsylvania (85) have overtaken California with respect to the number of federal website accessibility lawsuits.

Number of states with the most website lawsuits in federal court as of August 15, 2017: Arizona (7), California (65), Florida (385), Illinois (5), Massachusetts (17), New York (170), Ohio (4), Pennsylvania (85), Texas (4), Washington (5). There are at least this many lawsuits.

These lawsuits are a significant portion of the increase in total ADA Title III lawsuits filed in federal courts this year, which, as of April 2017, was already over 2600 filings in 2017—an 18% increase over the number of federal cases filed in the same time period in 2016.

Edited by Minh N. Vu.

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: 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: Trump Administration’s first Unified Agenda reveals DOJ has placed web accessibility, medical equipment, and furniture rulemakings under Title II and III of the ADA on Inactive List.

Federal agencies typically provide public notice of the regulations that are under development twice a year in the Unified Regulatory Agenda. The first Agenda the Trump Administration issued, which went online July 20, 2017, contains some very noteworthy changes from the last such Agenda, issued by the Obama Administration.

For the first time, the Agenda breaks down all agency regulatory actions into three categories: active, long-term, or inactive. While the Agenda does not define these terms, it appears that only the active and long-term matters receive a description and projected deadlines. The inactive matters appear on a PDF document under a link called “2017 Inactive Actions”.

The Agenda places the Department of Justice’s rulemakings under Titles II and III of the ADA for websites, medical equipment, and furniture of public accommodations and state and local governments on this 2017 Inactive Actions list, with no further information. Thus, as we had predicted, there will be no regulations about public accommodations or state and local government websites for the foreseeable future.

In the absence of website regulations, the courts are filling the void with a patchwork of decisions that often conflict with one another. The uncertain legal landscape has fueled a surge of lawsuits and demand letters filed and sent on behalf of individuals with disabilities alleging that the websites of thousands of public accommodations are not accessible.

The placement of the website and all other pending ADA Title III rulemaking activities (medical equipment and furniture) on the Inactive list is part of the Administration’s larger effort to reduce the number of regulations in development.  The Administration touted the following accomplishments on the Agenda’s homepage:

  • Agencies withdrew 469 actions that had been proposed in the Fall 2016 Agenda;
  • Agencies reconsidered 391 active actions by reclassifying them as long-term (282) and inactive (109), allowing for further careful review;
  • Economically significant regulations fell to 58 – about 50 percent fewer than Fall 2016;
  • For the first time, agencies will post and make public their list of “inactive” rules.

Edited by: Kristina M. Launey.

The increase of ADA Title III lawsuits in federal court shows no signs of stopping.  From January 1 through April 30, 2017, 2629 lawsuits were filed — 412 more than during the same period in 2016.  That’s a whopping 18 percent increase.  As we previously reported, the total number of lawsuits filed in federal court in 2016 was 6,601 and represented a 37% increase from 2015.

Federal ADA Title III Lawsuits: January 1-April 30, 2017: Jan.-April 2016 (2217); Jan.-April 2017 (2629)
Federal ADA Title III Lawsuits: January-April 2017: Jan.-April 2016 (2217); Jan.-April 2017 (2629)

Based on our own practice, website and mobile app accessibility lawsuits have become more common, with lawsuits being brought in new jurisdictions.  Our research team is crunching the website lawsuit numbers and we hope to get them to you soon.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Two recent decisions by federal judges to dismiss website accessibility lawsuits may cause more public accommodations to fight instead of settle these suits, but businesses must continue to weigh many factors before making that decision.

The litigation tide might be turning for public accommodations choosing to fight lawsuits brought by blind individuals claiming that the businesses’ websites violate Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not being accessible to them.  As we have previously reported, about a dozen or so plaintiffs’ firms have filed hundreds of lawsuits and sent thousands of demand letters to businesses asserting this type of claim on behalf of blind clients in the past two years.  Most of these matters have settled quickly and confidentially, and the relatively few defendants who chose to litigate rarely had success in getting the cases dismissed.  However, two recent decisions from California and Florida federal judges do provide encouragement for businesses that are willing to spend the money to litigate.

On March 20, 2017, federal District Judge James Otero of the Central District of California dismissed a lawsuit by a blind plaintiff who claimed that he could not order pizza from the Domino’s website because it could not be accessed using his screen reader.  The plaintiff claimed that by having an inaccessible website, Domino’s had violated Title III of the ADA and various California laws that prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities by public accommodations.

Dominos made three arguments as to why the case should be dismissed.  First, websites are not covered by Title III of the ADA.  Second, in the absence of regulations requiring public accommodations to have accessible websites, such entities can choose how they provide access to individuals with disabilities.   Dominos submitted evidence that it provided access for blind individuals through a 24-hour toll-free phone number where live agents would provide assistance with using the website, as well as direct phone access to stores for placing orders.  Third, holding Dominos liable for not having an accessible website would violate due process principles because the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not issued any regulations specifying whether and to what extent websites must be accessible or the legal standard to be applied in determining accessibility.

Judge Otero rejected the argument that the ADA does not cover websites of public accommodations. However, he agreed that Dominos had met its obligations under the law by providing telephonic access, and that requiring Dominos to have an accessible website at this time would violate its constitutional right to due process.  Judge Otero pointed out that neither the law nor the regulations require websites to be accessible, and that the 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, 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.”  This is the first time a court has dismissed a website accessibility case based on “due process” grounds and a welcome rebuke of the DOJ’s regulatory and enforcement activities to date.

On February 2, 2017, Florida District Judge Joan Lenard dismissed serial plaintiff Andres Gomez’s ADA Title III website lawsuit claim with leave to amend because he had failed to allege that his ability to use the defendant retailer’s website prevented him from accessing its stores.  Judge Lenard held that “[a]ll the ADA requires is that, if a retailer chooses to have a website, the website cannot impede a disabled person’s full use and enjoyment of the brick-and-mortar store.  To survive a motion to dismiss, Plaintiff must claim an actual (not hypothetical) impediment to the use of Defendant’s retail location.”  Gomez had alleged that he could not purchase products online, but did not claim that the website’s inaccessibility impeded his ability to go to a store.  Judge Lenard explicitly rejected the argument that the ADA requires a website to provide the same online-shopping experience as non-disabled persons, stating that “the ADA does not require places of public accommodations to create full-service websites.”

Practical Takeaways.  Here are some takeaways from these recent decisions:

  • All businesses that do not have an accessible website should have a 24/7 toll-free telephone number serviced by live customer service agents who can provide access to all of the information and functions on the website. The phone number should be identified on the website and be accessible using a screen reader.
  • Just because the judges in these cases ruled for the defendants does not mean that all defendants in future website accessibility cases will get the same outcome. These district court decisions are not binding on any other judges who may reach different conclusions.

These decisions do not change the analysis that a defendant must conduct in considering whether to fight or settle a particular case.  Defendants must consider many factors, including (1) the facts (e.g., is access to the goods and services on the website provided through some alternative channel, such as the telephone?), (2) the law in the circuit where the case is pending, (3) the judge, (4) the plaintiff, (5) the plaintiff’s law firm, (6) the cost of settlement, and (7) the cost of litigation.  The fact is that many of these cases can be settled for considerably less than what it would cost to file a motion to dismiss, and it is very difficult for prevailing defendants to recover their fees.  Defendants can only recover fees when the lawsuit was frivolous.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Fewer online videos from UC Berkeley will be available to the public as a result of a DOJ demand that the videos have closed captioning.

Starting March 15, 2017, more than 20,000 videos of classroom lectures and podcasts on UC Berkeley’s YouTube and iTunes channels will no longer be available for public viewing, according to a recent statement by the university.  The statement explains that the decision will “partially address recent findings by the Department of Justice which suggests that the YouTube and iTunesU content meet higher accessibility standards as a condition of remaining publicly available,” and “better protect instructor intellectual property from “pirates” who have reused content for personal profit without consent.”  UC Berkeley stated that it would focus its resources on creating new accessible online content and continue to offer free courses in accessible formats to the public through massive online open course provider, edX.

On August 30, 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued the findings UC Berkeley referenced in its recent statement, after conducting an investigation into the university’s compliance with Title II of the ADA.  DOJ concluded in the findings that that a covered entity subject to Title II has a duty to ensure content that it makes available to the public free of charge is accessible.

Similar to Title III of the ADA which applies to public accommodations (i.e., twelve categories of privately-owned entities that do business with the public), Title II of the ADA requires public universities and other covered entities to take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with individuals with disabilities are as effective as communications with others to afford qualified individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of their services programs, or activities.  It also requires covered entities to furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to achieve effective communication.  A covered entity is not, however, required to take any action that would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of its service, program or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.

As set forth in its findings letter, the DOJ opened its investigation after receiving complaints from the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) on behalf of two of its members that some of UC Berkeley’s online videos did not have closed captioning.  Significantly, these complainants were members of the public seeking access to free information, not students, prospective students, or faculty.  The DOJ concluded that many of UC Berkeley’s online videos did not have proper closed captions, and has threatened to file an enforcement lawsuit against the school unless it agrees to enter into a consent decree, caption all of its online content, and pay damages to individuals with disabilities who had been injured by UC Berkeley’s failure to provide accessible online videos.  This DOJ matter is still pending as no resolution or enforcement suit has been announced.

The DOJ’s position in its findings letter to UC Berkeley — that a covered entity has a duty to ensure that content that it makes available to the public free of charge is accessible — certainly pushes the boundaries of the ADA and has not been tested in the courts.  If covered entities must in fact ensure that all of the information that they put out for the world to use for free (no matter how remotely related to their central mission) or face lawsuits and DOJ investigations, there may well be a significant reduction in the amount of information provided on the web for public consumption.

A court may at some point rule on this precise question in the pending lawsuits brought by members of the NAD against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Massachusetts federal court.  The plaintiffs there are members of the public who are asking the court to order the universities to provide captioning for tens of thousands of videos on their websites.  As we reported, the court rebuffed the universities’ efforts to dismiss the case early and President Obama’s DOJ filed briefs supporting the NAD. As the case continues, the universities will likely focus their efforts on proving that providing captioning for tens of thousands of videos is an undue burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of the videos they are providing.  We would not be surprised if these lawsuits result in these universities deciding to follow UC Berkeley’s lead and limit the amount of public access to their online videos.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

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.

Seyfarth synopsis:  A Florida Judge Holds that SeaWorld’s website is not a place of public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA but the decision has its limits.

Defendants fighting website accessibility lawsuits in the past several years have not had a great deal of success, so the recent decision by Florida federal Magistrate Judge Carol Mirando holding that SeaWorld’s website is not a place of public accommodation was a small bright spot — albeit one with limitations.

The disabled pro se plaintiff in this case sued SeaWorld under Title III of the ADA because the business allegedly did not provide him with an electric wheelchair or allow his two service dogs entry.  The court held that the plaintiff did not have standing to bring these claims because there was no threat of imminent harm.  The plaintiff also alleged that SeaWorld’s website was not accessible to individuals with disabilities, although it is not clear how his disability impacted his use of the website.  The court rejected this claim, holding:

“Neither Busch Gardens’ nor SeaWorld’s online website is a physical or public accommodation under the ADA.  The Internet is a unique medium — known to its users as ‘cyberspace’ — located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to the internet.  Hence, Plaintiff is unable to demonstrate that either Busch Gardens’ or SeaWorld’s online website prevents his access to a specific, physical, concrete space such as a particular airline ticket counter or travel agency.  As a result, Plaintiff may not plead a claim based on accessibility of an online website under Title III of the ADA.”

In so holding, the court cited to Access Now, Inc. v. Southwest Airlines, Co., 227 F.Supp.2d 1312 (S.D.Fl. 2002), where another Florida district court had dismissed an ADA Title III claim against Southwest because the Southwest website was neither a public accommodation nor was a means of accessing a physical place of public accommodation.  The court in the Southwest Airlines case relied on the Eleventh Circuit holding in Rendon v. Valleycrest Prods., 294 F.3d 117 (11th Cir. 2002). There, the appellate court held that a plaintiff alleging that the telephone screening process for the Who Wants to be a Millionaire gameshow had stated a claim under Title III of the ADA — despite the fact that the telephone was not a physical place — because the screening process was a means of accessing the show which took place in a physical location.

The SeaWorld decision is not surprising in light of the Rendon decision and this pro se plaintiff’s failure to plead that the inaccessibility of the website prevented him from accessing a physical place of public accommodation.  The outcome could have been different if the case had been brought by a different plaintiff who was represented by competent counsel.

Moreover, as we have noted, other judicial circuits such as the First Circuit do not require that a business have a nexus to a physical location to be a place of public accommodation.  Thus, plaintiffs bringing lawsuits about websites that do not have a nexus to a physical place will likely choose those circuits for their lawsuits.  The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has also made clear its position that a website need not have any connection to a physical place to be covered by the ADA.  Thus, businesses that choose to argue in defense of a lawsuit that their websites are not public accommodations may invite an intervention by the DOJ as we blogged about last month.

In short, many considerations should go into a business’ decision as to whether it should fight or resolve a website accessibility lawsuit.

Edited by Kristina Launey.