United States: Two New York Federal Judges Refuse To Dismiss Website Accessibility Cases

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.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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