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On January 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to a national pizza chain’s website and mobile app “even though customers predominantly access them away from the physical restaurant” because the “statute applies to the services of a public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation.” According to the opinion, the plaintiff sued the defendant seeking damages and injunctive relief, contending that the defendant’s website and app did not work with his screen-reading software. The plaintiff requested that the court order the defendant to alter its website and app to comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and make it accessible to individuals with disabilities as required by Title III of the ADA. The defendant argued that the ADA does not apply to its online offerings, and that applying the ADA would violate its due process rights.
Although the district court held that Title III of the ADA applied to the defendant’s website and app, it granted defendant’s motion to dismiss under the primary jurisdiction doctrine, stating that in order to “cure” due process concerns, it would require “meaningful guidance” on website accessibility standards yet to be issued by the DOJ in order “to determine what obligations a regulated individual or institution must abide by in order to comply with Title III.” On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed the district court’s reliance on the primary jurisdiction doctrine, finding it to be inapplicable since waiting for the DOJ to provide guidance on accessibility standards would cause “needless” delay of a resolution the lower court could determine. Moreover, the fact that the DOJ has not articulated a website accessibility standard does not violate a defendant’s due process rights because the “ADA articulates comprehensible standards to which [the defendant’s] conduct must conform.”
11th Circuit holds deaf plaintiff not required to file complaint with FCC before filing lawsuit under other federal disability rights laws
On September 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit vacated a district court’s decision to grant a Florida city’s (City) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that (i) the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) did not require the appellant to exhaust his remedies before the FCC prior to commencing a lawsuit under other federal disability statutes; and (ii) the primary-jurisdiction doctrine does not apply to this case.
According to the opinion, the appellant, a deaf individual, alleged that none of the video content stored on the City’s four webpages provided closed captioning, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court dismissed the action without prejudice, holding the CVAA requires exhaustion of remedies by the FCC as a prerequisite to the filing of a lawsuit.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit rejected as “an overbroad reading of the statute” the City’s argument that the CVAA contains an exhaustion requirement for claims brought under other disability rights statutes. In support of its position that the FCC only has exclusive jurisdiction over closed captioning complaints brought under the relevant section of the CVAA, the Court cited a 9th Circuit decision, which concluded “the FCC’s exclusive jurisdiction over complaints under the CVAA does nothing to extinguish [the plaintiff’s] right to pursue broader relief for online captioning under [California state law].” In rejecting the City’s primary-jurisdiction argument, the 11th Circuit first cited instances where the FCC—in a report to Congress and in a communication to this plaintiff in an unrelated action—took the position that the CVAA does not require plaintiffs to exhaust administrative remedies as a prerequisite to bringing lawsuits under other federal statutes. The Court also applied the two-factor primary jurisdiction doctrine test, concluding that (i) the FCC has no expertise with respect to the claims under the other federal disability rights statutes before the lower court; and (ii) “this case presents no special need for uniformity.”
On August 7, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed claims that a credit union’s website violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), holding that the plaintiff lacked standing because he was not (and was ineligible to be) a member of the credit union. According to the opinion, the plaintiff is permanently blind and alleged that the credit union’s website did not comply with ADA requirements that are applicable to online website accessibility. The district court granted the credit union’s motion to dismiss on standing grounds, finding the plaintiff had no plausible reason to use the credit union’s website because the website was directed at members of the credit union, and the plaintiff was not (and was ineligible to be) a member.
On June 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that a plaintiff’s claims against a national restaurant chain for allegedly operating a website that was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are not moot despite a previous settlement with a separate plaintiff. The plaintiff sued the restaurant chain seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, requesting that the court (i) order the restaurant to alter its website and make it accessible to individuals with disabilities as required by Title III of the ADA; and (ii) order the restaurant chain to continually update and maintain that accessibility. Prior to the plaintiff’s filing, the restaurant chain reached a settlement in an earlier case with similar claims. The district court held that the plaintiff’s claims were moot because the restaurant chain had already agreed to the remedy the plaintiff sought in the previous settlement and had begun the process of its remediation plan by placing an accessibility notice on its website. On appeal, the 11th Circuit disagreed with the lower court, holding that the plaintiff’s claims are not moot, finding that the restaurant chain has not yet successfully remediated its website and the plaintiff’s request for an injunction against the restaurant chain if the website is not brought into compliance is still viable. The appellate court also noted that the current plaintiff would have no way of enforcing the settlement’s remediation plan because he was not a party to that action.
On May 21, a California Superior Court granted summary judgment to a visually-impaired plaintiff, ruling that “auxiliary aids” in the form of phone calls or email replies do not meet the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) burden of providing “full and equal enjoyment of…any place of public accommodation.” According to the order, the defendants, who operate a restaurant and website, argued in part that the plaintiff could have called or emailed the restaurant to obtain information from the website. However, the judge ruled that “email and telephone options do not provide effective communication ‘in a timely manner’ nor do they protect the independence of the visually impaired” because they force a wait for a call back or reply email. As to whether the defendants’ website qualified as a “place of public accommodation within the meaning of the ADA,” the judge ruled that—while courts are split about whether “public accommodations” are limited to physical spaces—the defendants’ restaurant website fell within the category of a public accommodation under a “plain reading” of the statute, and the DOJ’s interpretation of websites under Title III of the ADA. In addition to awarding $4,000 in statutory damages, the court issued an injunction to the defendants, ordering them to comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA to ensure their website is ADA compliant.
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