Seyfarth Synopsis:  A Missouri federal judge orders a theatre to provide, upon request, captioning services for the deaf for all theatrical performances.

A federal judge in Missouri recently ordered a 4500-seat indoor theatre to provide open or closed captioning for all theatrical performances upon request with two weeks’ notice, in a lawsuit brought by deaf patrons and advocacy organizations.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri initially offered no captioning services of any kind for its theatre productions. After the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit, the theater agreed to provide captioning on a handheld device for one prescheduled Broadway-style performance per production (usually on a Saturday matinee), if it receives a request for captioning two weeks before the show. The theatre provided stands for the devices only at designated accessible seats because the fire marshal considered them to be a fire hazard. The plaintiffs maintained that captioning should be available for all shows, and that the theatre should provide stands for the handheld devices at all seats, not just accessible seats. They also sought an injunction requiring the theatre to (a) publicize the availability of captioning; (b) provide a means to request captioning; and (c) provide a method for people to purchase tickets by non-telephonic means, including e-mail.

The judge agreed with the plaintiffs on every issue but one. The judge held that providing captioning for only one show per Broadway-style production denied plaintiffs the equal opportunity to participate in the theatre’s performances because it limited their ability to choose from a number of different performances that were available to non-disabled patrons. The court also found that the theatre had failed to meet its obligation to provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication with the plaintiff. The theatre did not attempt to argue that providing captioning for all performances upon request would be an undue burden or fundamental alteration of its performances. Accordingly, the court ordered the theatre to provide captioning for all theatrical performances upon request with two weeks’ notice. The court also – with no discussion – ordered the theatre to publicize the availability of captioning, provide a means to request captioning, and provide a method of buying tickets through non-telephonic means, including e-mail. The court did not require the theatre to provide stands for the captioning devices at non-accessible seats, due to fire safety concerns.

The decision serves as a reminder that Title III of the ADA requires public accommodations to provide auxiliary aids and services to individuals with disabilities to ensure effective communication with them, unless doing so imposes an undue burden or fundamentally alters the nature of the goods and services provided. Organizers of events that are open to the public should keep this in mind and have a plan for ensuring effective communication for participants and spectators with different types of disabilities, as there have been a number of lawsuits filed in the past several years over the lack of captioning for live events.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

By Minh N. Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis:  HR 620 requires potential plaintiffs to provide businesses with notice of architectural barriers and give them an opportunity to remove them before filing suit. 

Today, the House of Representatives passed the ADA Education and Reform Act (HR 620) by a vote of 225 to 192, with 12 Democrats voting for the bill.  As we recently reported , the number of ADA Title III lawsuits has risen dramatically in the past four years.  HR 620 is primarily an attempt to stem the tide of lawsuits brought by serial plaintiffs who bring dozens, if not hundreds, of lawsuits against businesses based on relatively minor physical access barriers found in their facilities for quick settlements.

HR 620 requires a would-be plaintiff to send the business a pre-suit notice that specifies (1) the alleged barriers in the facility, with a citation of the section of the ADA that has been violated; (2) “the circumstances under which the individual was actually denied access to a public accommodation;” and (3) whether a “request for assistance in removing the barrier was made.”  A lawsuit can only be filed after sending this notice if the business does not respond within 60 days with a description of the improvements that it will make to remove the barrier.  If the business responds as required, but fails to remove the barrier or make “substantial progress” toward removing the barrier within 120 days, a lawsuit can be filed.  HR 620 also requires the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to develop a program to educate state and local governments and property owners about the ADA’s requirements, and directs the Judicial Conference of the United States to develop a model program to promote the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms (including a stay of discovery during mediation – similar in concept to what some courts already require by local rule, such as in the Northern District of California) to facilitate early resolution rather than litigation  of ADA claims based on alleged architectural barriers.

Supporters of the bill say that — because there are so many technical requirements that businesses can violate unknowingly (e.g., the toilet paper roll is half an inch too far away from the toilet, or the mirror is 1” too high) — providing businesses with notice and an opportunity to remove barriers is a good thing and does exactly what the law was designed to do — make businesses accessible.  Opponents say that the amendment will cause businesses to sit back and take no action to comply with the law until they receive a notice.  In addition, they claim that attorneys will be reluctant to take on these cases because there is no chance to receive a fee award by a court if a business does in fact remove the barriers identified in the notice.

Whether HR 620 (or some form of it) will ever become law remains to be seen, as the Senate has taken little action on this issue.  That said, HR 620 is the most significant development thus far in the effort to deter serial ADA lawsuit filers and may provide some momentum for legislative reform.

Edited by Kristina Launey

By Kristina M. Launey, Minh N. Vu, & Susan Ryan

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The number of federal ADA Title III lawsuits continue to surge in 2017, fueled largely by website accessibility claims; while legislative reform efforts continue to mitigate the physical accessibility portion of those lawsuit numbers.

The results of our 2017 ADA Title III lawsuit count are in, putting a fifth consecutive year (since we began tracking in 2013) of growth in the number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in federal court.  In 2017, 7,663 ADA Title III lawsuits were filed in federal court — 1,062 more than in 2016. While a bit slower growth than in 2016 (which saw an 1,812, or 37% year over year increase) over 2015, this 16% increase is almost double the 2014-2015 8% increase, demonstrating a continued upward trend in the number of filings.

ADA Title III Lawsuits in Federal Court: 2013-2017: 2013 (2722); 2014 (4436, 63% increase over 2013); 2015 (4789, 8% increase over 2014); 2016 (6601, 37% increase over 2015); 2017 (7663, 16% increase over 2016)

California and Florida continue to be hotbeds of litigation, with 2,751 and 1,488 lawsuits (up from 2,468 in CA in 2016 and down from 1,663 in FL) respectively. New York is the big story, having almost doubled its 543 lawsuits filed in 2016 to 1023 in 2017.  Utah moved up in the ranks, with a more than doubling of federal lawsuit filings, from 124 to 360. Nevada, not in the top 10 states for filings in 2016, is relatively close behind with 276 lawsuits, while the 2016 holder of the fifth spot, Texas, dropped to number nine, cutting its 267 2016 number down by more than half, to 129.  Arizona, with 335 lawsuit filings in 2016, dropped out of the top 10 in 2017.  Colorado’s numbers also more than doubled, from 92 in 2016 to 215 in 2017; and New Jersey newly entered the top 10 this year with 108 lawsuits.  Georgia, held its sixth spot on the chart, also holding fairly steady at 187 lawsuits, a slight decrease from the 193 filed in 2016.  Finally, Pennsylvania showed relatively modest growth, increasing by 80 lawsuits over its 102 2016 count.  Here are the numbers for the top ten states:

  1. CA: 2751
  2. FL: 1488
  3. NY: 1023
  4. UT: 360
  5. NV: 276
  6. CO: 215
  7. GA: 187
  8. PA: 182
  9. TX: 129
  10. NJ: 108
Top 10 States for ADA Title III Federal Lawsuits in 2016: CA (2751); FL (1488); NY (1023); UT (360); NV (276); CO (215); GA (187); PA (182); TX (129); NJ (108)

Similar to last year, while physical accessibility lawsuits remain common, these numbers continue to be driven largely by the vast numbers of website accessibility lawsuit filings, many by new attorneys in familiar (CA, FL, NY) jurisdictions.  The extreme increase in New York is likely due at least in part to 2017 federal court decisions that have likely embolded plaintiffs’ attorneys in that jurisdiction.  Note that these numbers of course do not include the many demand letters plaintiffs sent to businesses asserting website accessibility claims, do not include lawsuits filed only in state courts, and are conservative estimates, as our research methods are sound in finding at least the numbers we report here, and it is entirely likely we have not captured every ADA Title III filed in federal court.

Meanwhile, Congress has continued legislative efforts to provide business some relief from “drive-by” physical accessibility lawsuits.  The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, introduced January 24, 2017 as H.R. 620 by Texas Representative Ted Poe, would, among other things, codify a “notice and cure period” that would prohibit a plaintiff from filing a lawsuit based on failure to remove an architectural barrier unless the plaintiff has first given the businesses notice of the alleged violations and an opportunity to provide a plan to address them.  On October 30, 2017, the House Committee on the Judiciary reported the bill, and it is scheduled for referral to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution and Civil Justice on February 8, 2017.  Some states also continued their own legislative reform efforts, such as Florida HB 727, effective July 1, 2017; and in Nevada the State Attorney General intervened in a federal ADA Title III lawsuit by a serial plaintiff who had filed at least 275 lawsuits seven months.

We will, as always, continue to keep tracking lawsuit filings, legislative efforts, and other breaking developments and keep you up to date — as the Title III trend shows no signs of cooling down in 2018.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Florida’s recently-enacted House Bill 727 gives businesses a way to deter serial plaintiffs from suing them in Florida courts.

Watching businesses deal with the at least 1,663 ADA Title III access suits filed in federal court in Florida in 2016 motivated Florida legislators to take action with House Bill 727 (“HB 727”) which went into effect on July 1, 2017. One of bill’s sponsors, Rep. Tom Leek, claims that “[t]his law give the ADA back to the people for whom it was written, Americans with disabilities.” We are not quite so optimistic.

Under HB 727, a business that hires a “qualified expert” to inspect its premises to either verify conformity with ADA facilities access requirements, or to develop a compliance plan, can have that information considered in a lawsuit filed in a court within the state of Florida, provided that the certificate of conformity or remediation plan has been filed with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (the “DBPR”). The court “must consider” any such remediation plan or certificate of conformity “and determine[s] if the plaintiff’s complaint was filed in good faith and if the plaintiff is entitled to attorney fees and costs.”

Here’s how it would work: An owner of a place of public accommodation pays a “qualified expert” to inspect its premises. If the expert concludes that the facility complies with the ADA, the business can submit a “certificate of conformity” to the DBPR stating that the premises conforms to Title III.  Certificates of conformity are valid for three years and must include: the date that the premises was inspected, the name of the “qualified expert,” proof of the expert’s qualifications, and a statement from the qualified expert attesting that the information contained in the certificate is complete and accurate.

Businesses whose facilities do not fully comply with the ADA can submit a remediation plan to the DBPR indicating that the facility intends to conform with ADA requirements within a reasonable amount of time that does not exceed 10 years. In addition to the requirements applicable to the certificate of conformity, the remediation plan must include the specific remedial measures that the place of public accommodation will undertake, and the anticipated date of completion.

To be a “qualified expert,” one must be a building code inspector, architect, engineer, contractor, or “person who has prepared a remediation plan related to a claim under Title III … that has been accepted by a federal court in a settlement agreement or court proceeding, or who has been qualified as an expert in Title III … by a federal court.” This means that an experienced defense attorney who has prepared a remediation plan for a court approved settlement could be considered a “qualified expert.”

HB 727 is not likely to have much impact on the number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in Florida for several reasons. First, the law will likely only apply to ADA lawsuits filed in state court, and most ADA Title III lawsuits are filed in federal court. This is because under the Supremacy Clause of the United States constitution, Florida state’s requirement that a court must consider remediation plans and certifications of conformity are likely preempted by the ADA and will not be applied to a plaintiff’s federal lawsuit. Second, given that HB 727 does not explicitly render an access lawsuit moot just because there is a remediation plan or certificate of conformity on file, businesses will be reluctant to publicize access barriers in their facilities in a publicly-filed document, which plaintiffs can still use to sue them. Third, having a court consider the existence of a remediation plan or certificate of conformity in deciding whether to award a plaintiff attorneys’ fees is not likely to deter plaintiffs who know that defendant businesses will need to spend a lot of money litigating before a court ever considers either of these documents.  Fourth, HB 727 does nothing to address the explosion of website access litigation under the ADA in Florida which has been a key driver in the increased number of lawsuits in the past 12 months. Indeed, as we have previously reported (here and here), California has similar legislation to HB 727, yet California still had approximately 2,468 ADA Title III filings in federal court in 2016 and continues, along with Florida, to be a hotbed for ADA Title III litigation.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an apparent effort to stop one plaintiff’s lawsuit spree, the Nevada Attorney General moves to intervene in a federal ADA Title III lawsuit arguing that the plaintiff failed to provide notice to the state agency responsible for enforcing Nevada’s antidiscrimination law before filing suit.

On Wednesday, August 9, the Nevada Attorney General filed a motion to intervene in an ADA Title III lawsuit filed by serial plaintiff Kevin Zimmerman who (according the motion) had sued more than 275 Nevada businesses in federal courts in the past seven months.

The motion to intervene argues that Title III of the ADA requires private plaintiffs to – before filing in federal court – provide 30 days’ notice to the state agency responsible for enforcing state laws that prohibit the same type of discriminatory conduct at issue in the federal suit.  The Nevada Attorney General explained that the notice gives the state enforcement agencies an opportunity to conduct their own investigation and take action.  The brief notes that there is an exception to this notice requirement where a plaintiff has actual notice that the defendant does not intend to comply with the law, but Mr. Zimmerman did not plead that he had actual notice of any such intent.  This is an interesting argument that could be a useful defense strategy in some ADA Title III cases, though it has been rejected as the basis for a dispositive ruling by the Ninth Circuit in Botosan v. Paul McNally Realty.

The Nevada Attorney General’s motion to intervene is not the first time that a state attorney general has stepped in to thwart the actions of serial plaintiffs filing accessibility lawsuits.  Last year, the Arizona Attorney General intervened in and secured the dismissal of 1700 cases filed against Arizona businesses under the Arizonians with Disabilities Act (not the ADA), as we reported here.

Stay tuned for more developments in Nevada – a state that only had 6 ADA Title III lawsuits in all of 2016.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Utah businesses are experiencing an unprecedented number of ADA Title III lawsuits.

Utah used to be a good place for public accommodations that did not want to be sued for ADA Title III violations.  In 2013, 2014, and 2015 combined, plaintiffs only filed a total of eight such lawsuits in federal court (1, 6, and 1, respectively).  In 2016, the number surged to 124, making Utah the seventh most busy federal venue for such filings for that year.  In just the first five months of 2017, plaintiffs have filed 125 lawsuits in the Utah federal courts, the highest number since we started tracking them in 2013.

Federal ADA Title III Lawsuits Filed in Utah Federal Courts: 2013-2017: 2013 (1), 2014 (6), 2015 (1), 2016 (124), Jan.-May 2017 (125)

Nine plaintiffs are responsible for the 2017 numbers so far, with one who has filed 57 such suits.  Another six plaintiffs have each filed between 9 and 15 cases, and two have only filed one case each.  These plaintiffs have been represented by one of six law firms, one of which was counsel in 105 of the 124 cases filed in 2016.  Most of these cases appear to concern alleged architectural barriers in public accommodations facilities.

Utah businesses are not likely to experience the level of disability access litigation as their counterparts in California, Florida, or New York, but we are not ruling out that possibility.

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.

Disabled sign pinned on cork noticeboard

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Recent guidance from the U.S. Access Board makes it more difficult for businesses to argue that the Accessible Icon constitutes “equivalent facilitation” under the ADA, even though jurisdictions such as New York and Connecticut require the use of this alternative disability access symbol.

As we previously reported, New York State and more recently, Connecticut, passed legislation requiring the use of the “Accessible Icon” in lieu of the traditional International Symbol of Access (“ISA”) in new construction and alterations whenever an accessibility sign is required by code.  But Title III of the ADA and the Architectural Barriers Act (“ABA”), which apply to public accommodations facilities and federally-funded facilities, respectively, still require the use of the ISA.  Specifically, the ADA and ABA require that the ISA be used to label and provide direction to certain accessible spaces and elements, such as restrooms, parking spaces, and check-out aisles.

This conflict has presented a quandary for businesses: Display the ISA as the ADA requires; display the Accessible Icon, as state or local codes require; or, display both symbols, which would multiply costs, negatively impact aesthetics, and potentially confuse patrons.

Last week, the U.S. Access Board, the federal agency that drafted the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (which the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) incorporated into its ADA Title III regulations) and also sets accessibility standards for federal agencies, issued a Guidance stating unequivocally that “the ISA must be used even where a state or local code or regulation specifies a different symbol.”  Although the DOJ, not the Access Board, enforces Title III of the ADA and the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the Guidance could be considered by a court in a Title III enforcement action, given the Access Board’s relevant expertise.

Is the ISA Really Outmoded?

The Accessible Icon Project began as a “street art” campaign that was apparently intended to replace the “traditional,” static figure displayed in the ISA with a more active, dynamic and positive depiction of individuals with disabilities.

The ISA (left) and the Accessible Icon (right)

The effort to replace the ISA with the Accessible Icon has faced recent hurdles.  In May 2015, the Federal Highway Administration (“FHA”) issued an Interpretation Letter stating that the use of alternative symbols of accessibility are not acceptable for traffic control device applications because they are not “unmistakably similar” to the ISA.  The agency went one step further, commenting that the use of non-conforming symbols, including “by approval of local authority,” “compromises the enforceability of these devices.” (emphasis added)  The Interpretation Letter also noted that the Access Board has not adopted or endorsed any alternative designs.

Access Board: the ISA is Still the Recognized Symbol of Accessibility

The Access Board’s Guidance states that the ISA has become a “worldwide” symbol that “reflects considerable analysis by, and consensus of, an international collection of technical experts,” including the International Organization for Standardization, which is a non-governmental organization that represents over 160 national standard-setting agencies.  In addition to the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s ADA Standards, ABA, International Building Code (“IBC”), National Fire Protection Association Standards, and ICC A117.1 also require the ISA.

No Endorsement of the Accessible Icon as “Equivalent Facilitation”

Businesses in New York or Connecticut where they are required by new state laws to use the Accessible Icon in new construction and alterations could display the Accessible Icon and take the position that its use satisfies the “equivalent facilitation” provision in Section 103 of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.  Under Section 103, businesses may use “designs. . . as alternatives to those prescribed [by the ADA], provided they result in substantially equivalent or greater accessibility and usability.”  However, no court or agency has ruled on this issue.  The Guidance does not comment on whether the Accessible Icon would constitute “equivalent facilitation” but instead defers to the courts, and encourages those advocating for a new symbol to contact the International Organization for Standardization.

The Guidance stresses the value of uniformity and recognition over what some believe is a negative (or at least limiting) depiction of individuals with disabilities.  The ISA “promotes legibility, especially for people with low vision or cognitive disabilities,” according to the Guidance.  This supports the Access Board’s conclusion that, irrespective of conflicting state or local requirements, businesses must display the ISA where required by federal standards.

Businesses Should Carefully Consider the Use of the Accessibility Icon in Future Projects

The situation is confusing, but one thing is clear:  Businesses that do not use the traditional ISA symbol where it is required by federal law face litigation exposure under Title III of the ADA, and the Access Board’s Guidance makes the “equivalent facilitation” argument more challenging.  Businesses in New York and Connecticut should seek guidance on whether local permitting authorities have the ability to waive the Accessible Icon requirement, the consequences of not using the Accessible Icon, and the implications of using both the Accessible Icon and the ISA.

Edited by Kristina Launey and Minh Vu.

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.”

***

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: 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.