** Despite Rash of Lawsuits by Private ADA Litigants, Major Web Accessibility Issues under Title III Remain Unresolved in 2016**
Website Accessibility has been an expanding battleground for the plaintiffs’ bar over the past several years. Title III of the ADA provides that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182. “Public accommodations” includes private enterprises whose operations affect commerce and who fall within one of twelve enumerated categories (broadly covering everything from grocery stores to amusement parks to places of education). 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7). Specifically, Title III imposes requirements on businesses to provide “auxiliary aids and services” to the disabled where such aids are necessary for effective communication unless the entity can demonstrate that taking such steps would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations being offered or would result in undue burden. 42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(iii); 28 C.F.R. § 36.303. For website owners, the most common accommodation for the disabled is embedding code beneath graphics that makes it possible for assistive technologies to access information and navigate websites. According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international body that develops open standards and guidelines for web developers, there are hundreds of such design options to make a website accessible such as providing links to definitions, removing time limits for activities, providing spoken word versions of text, and ensuring keyboard control for all website functions.
Under the auspices of Title III, plaintiffs’ attorneys have filed hundreds of accessibility suits in the past year claiming that websites are failing to provide necessary accommodations – their favorite target being deep pocketed online retailers. Notably, only a handful of ADA focused firms are filing these cases — reports show that over 90% of the suits are bought by just 8 different law firms. Yet despite the attention garnered by this rash of law suits, two critical issues were NOT resolved in 2016.
The first unresolved issue: Does Title III — enacted in the pre-internet era (all the way back in 1990) — even apply to websites (and if so, which ones)? The Third, Sixth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits apply the ADA only to websites that have a physical connection to goods and services available at one of the enumerated places of accommodation listed in 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7) – i.e. extending the ADA only so far as the online version of a company’s physical store or location. Accordingly, goods and services without a sufficient nexus to a physical location are not covered by Title III. See, e.g., Weyer v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 198 F.3d 1104, 1114-16 (9th Cir. 2000) (requiring some connection between the goods or services complained of and an actual physical place); Ford v. Schering-Plough Corp., 145 F.3d 601, 612-13 (3d Cir. 1998) (finding no nexus between challenged insurance policy and services offered to the public from insurance office); Parker v. Metropolitan Life Ins., 121 F.3d 1006 (6th Cir. 1997); Earll v. eBay, Inc., 599 F. App’x 695, 696 (9th Cir. 2015) (ADA claim fails because eBay’s services not connected to any physical place); Cullen v. Netflix, Inc., 600 F. App’x 508, 509 (9th Cir. 2015) (Netflix not subject to ADA because Netflix’s services not connected to any physical place); Young v. Facebook, Inc., 790 F. Supp. 2d 1110 (N.D. Cal. 2011) (ADA claim fails because Facebook’s internet services do not have a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation).
The Second and Seventh Circuits, on the other hand, apply the ADA more broadly. See, e.g., Carparts Distrib. Ctr., Inc. v. Automotive Wholesaler’s Assoc. of New England, Inc., 37 F.3d 12 (1st Cir. 1994) (finding Title III not limited to physical places); Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind v. Scribd, 97 F.Supp. 3d 565 (D. Vt. 2015) (finding website with no nexus to a physical space covered by Title III); Nat’l Assoc. of the Deaf v. Netflix, Inc., 869 F. Supp. 2d 196 (D. Mass. 2012) (finding website with no nexus to a physical space covered byTitle III); cf. Doe v. Mutual of Omaha Ins. Co., 179 F.3d 557, 559 (7th Cir. 1999) (finding Title III coverage of websites in dicta); Morgan v. Joint Admin. Bd., Ret. Plan of the Pillsbury Co., 268 F.3d 456, 459 (7th Cir. 2001) (same); see also Nat’l Assoc. of the Deaf, et al. v. MIT, 15-cv-30024, 2016 WL 6652471 (D. Mass. Nov. 4, 2016) (denying motion to stay or dismiss claim that defendant violated Title III of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to caption its online content); Nat’l Assoc. of the Deaf, et al v. Harvard Univ., 15-cv-30023, 2016 WL 6540446 (D. Mass. Nov. 3, 2016) (same). This circuit split will have to be resolved by the Supreme Court or by congressional intervention.
Which brings us to the second unresolved issue: Will the Department of Justice, pursuant to its statutory authority to promulgate regulations to implement Title II & III, step in and give some guidance on what specific technical accommodations are required (and which are not)? On July 26, 2010, the Department issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“ANPRM”) on Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities and Public Accommodations announcing the Department’s interest in developing more specific requirements or technical standards for website accessibility. 75 Fed. Reg. 43,460 (July 26, 2010). In the ANPRM, the Department reaffirmed its longstanding position that the ADA applies to websites as public accommodations and reiterated, consistent with the preamble to the 1991 regulations, that the ADA should be interpreted to keep pace with developing technologies. Id. at 43,464 (“The Department has also repeatedly affirmed the application of Title III to Web sites of public accommodations.”) The Department recognized, however, that in light of inconsistent court decisions on website-related obligations and differing technical standards for determining web accessibility, further guidance was warranted. Id. Despite these aspirational statements, the DOJ has yet to finalize its guidance. Instead, on May 9, 2016, it issued a lengthy Supplemental ANPRM (SANPRM) for state and local government websites, and then extended the comment period. With those delays — as well as the advent of a new administration — the Title II regulations (for governmental entities) will be pushed back into 2017 and the Title III regulations (which are expected to closely mirror the ones for Title II) to (at the earliest) the end of 2017. In the meantime, the DOJ appears to be satisfied intervening on a case by case basis through statement of interest filings (Nat’l Assoc. of the Deaf v. Netflix, Inc., 869 F. Supp. 2d 196 (D. Mass. 2012); Gil. v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc, 16-cv-23020 (S.D. Fl. Dec. 12, 2016) (Statement of Interest)) and through consent decrees (see Nat’l Fed. of the Blind and United States v. HRB Digital LLC and HRB Tax Group, Inc., No. 1:13-cv-10799-GAO (decree governing the accessibility of H&R Block’s website); Settlement Agreement Between United States and Ahold U.S.A. Inc. and Peapod LLC.)
These issues are ripe for action in 2017. Owners of websites of all stripes should be on the look-out.Share this: