Must Commercial Websites and Apps Be Accessible to the Disabled?
Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC
On January 15, 2019, the Ninth Circuit issued Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC, 913 F.3d 898, where the plaintiff, a blind man, sued Dominos under the ADA and California Unruh Act because its website and mobile app was not accessible to the blind.
The Ninth Circuit held that the ADA, which requires “places of public accommodation” to provide accommodations to those with disabilities including the blind, applies to Domino’s website and mobile app since there was a nexus between the website/mobile app and the physical restaurants. Id. at 906 (“The [ADA] statute applies to the services of a place of public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation”) (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis in the original).
In so holding, the Ninth Circuit rejected the District Court’s finding that defendant’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process was violated given the DOJ’s lack of clear guidelines of how websites and mobile apps can comply with the ADA. The court stated that “as a general matter, the lack of specific regulations cannot eliminate a statutory obligation.” Id. at 909. The Ninth Circuit rules also emphasized that the ADA and its regulations “are intended to give public accommodations maximum flexibility in meeting the statute’s requirements.” Dominos, supra, 913 F.3d at p. 908.
What does this mean for businesses in California?
As a result of Dominos, many California companies have already received demand letters from plaintiff firms—i.e. “ADA trolls”—alleging violation of the ADA and Unruh Act. These ADA Trolls are no doubt demanding not only compliance with WCAG 2.0 Guidelines, but Ninth Circuit attorney’s fees and expenses of $40,000.00 or more. Our clients have received such demands from “drive-by” plaintiffs who seem more interested in the disability attorney fees than in genuinely wanting to use the websites or apps.
To minimize the likelihood of encountering these plaintiffs, companies with “brick and mortar” locations that also maintain websites and/or mobile apps, should work to make websites and mobile apps ADA compliant. The most likely way to avoid compliance issues is to contact companies that specialize in conforming websites and/or mobile sites to WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines (https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/), which the DOJ has previously stated complies with the ADA by making content accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including blindness, deafness, learning disabilities, limited movement, speech disabilities, and any combinations of these. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Dominos that having a 24/7 hotline number on the website/mobile app that individuals with accessibility issues could call, could also satisfy the ADA’s website accessibility rules.
Even smaller “brick and mortar” companies (i.e. those with less than 50 employees) should take efforts to make any website/mobile app compliant. While California state disability benefits provides a defense for certain smaller companies with physical offices that attempt to remedy physical violations of state disability laws upon notice of the defect (see SB 269), this defense does not apply to the ADA, which is a federal law. Furthermore, SB 269 currently appears to only apply to physical violations in “brick and mortar” locations and has not been extended to online locations. This means that California circuit courts may still impose the full statutory penalties on companies for online violations of California disability laws like the Unruh Act, even if those companies immediately make their site compliant after notice of the violation.
Companies that operate exclusively through websites or mobile app are also vulnerable to suit. The 1st Circuit and the DOJ have already taken the position that no “brick and mortar” location is needed in order for the ADA website laws to apply. See e.g. Carparts Distribution Ctr., Inc. v. Auto. Wholesaler’s Ass’n of New England, Inc., 37 F.3d 12, 19 (1st Cir. 1994) (stating “[e]ven if the meaning of “public accommodation” is not plain, it is, at worst, ambiguous. This ambiguity, considered together with agency regulations and public policy concerns, persuades us that [a place of public accommodation] is not limited to actual physical structures); see also Letter from Deval L. Patrick, Assistant Att’y Gen., to Senator Tom Harkin (Sept. 9, 1996) (“Covered entities under the ADA are required to provide effective communication, regardless of whether they generally communicate through print media, audio media, or computerized media such as the Internet”; see also Applicability of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to Private Internet Sites: Hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Committee on the Judiciary, 106th Cong., 2d Sess. 65–010 (2000) (“It is the opinion of the Department of Justice currently that the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act already apply to private Internet Web sites and services.”).
We expect that so-called ADA trolls will undoubtedly stand behind the 1st Ciruit’s and DOJ’s definition of “places of public accommodation” in cases where businesses operate exclusively online. Thus, operators of commercial websites and apps should get ahead of this trend, make their websites compliant, and monitor compliance by updating their sites as the technology and law continues to emerge.