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On April 7, a split U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit concluded that a website is not a “public accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiff sued a supermarket chain under Title III of the ADA, alleging its website was incompatible with screen reader software and caused him injury by denying him the “full and equal enjoyment” provided to sighted customers. The district court issued a judgment ordering the supermarket chain to bring its website into compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 standard after concluding that the plaintiff sufficiently demonstrated a sufficient “nexus” between the website and the supermarket chain’s physical premises. On appeal, the appellate court reviewed, among other things, the question of whether websites are public accommodations under the ADA. The majority vacated the district court’s ruling that the website was an intangible barrier to the supermarket chain’s physical stores and in violation of the ADA. Specifically, the majority reviewed the 12 types of locations listed as public accommodations under Title III, and found that none of them were “intangible places or spaces, such as websites.”
The majority further distinguished its conclusion from its holding in Rendon. v. Valleycrest Products, Ltd., in which it determined that the ADA covers both tangible, physical barriers as well as “intangible barriers, such as eligibility requirements and screening rules or discriminatory policies and procedures that restrict a disabled person’s ability to enjoy the defendant entity’s goods, services and privileges,” noting that the “limited use website, although inaccessible by individuals who are visually disabled, does not function as an intangible barrier to an individual with a visual disability accessing the goods, services, privileges or advantages of [the supermarket chain’s] physical stores.” Moreover, the majority rejected the plaintiff’s argument that Rendon established that a plaintiff only has to demonstrate a “nexus” between the service and the physical public accommodation, declining to adopt such a standard after finding no basis for it in the ADA or in previous precedent. This decision further divides the circuits over the scope of a “public accommodation.”
On July 30, seven Republican Senators sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr requesting updates on the DOJ’s efforts to clarify website accessibility requirements for businesses under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This request follows a letter previously sent to the DOJ in September 2018, requesting the Department’s help in resolving uncertainties regarding website accessibility regulations and requesting guidance to address conflicting court opinions. According to the Senators, the DOJ withdrew two Notices of Proposed Rulemaking concerning website accessibility standards in 2017 under claims that it is “evaluating whether promulgating regulations about the accessibility of Web information and services is necessary and appropriate. Such an evaluation will be informed by additional review of data and further analysis. The Department will continue to assess whether specific technical standards are necessary and appropriate to assist covered entities with complying with the ADA.” The DOJ responded a month later, stating that “absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a specific voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”
In their 2019 letter, the Senators stressed that, because the DOJ did not specify further concrete plans to address website accessibility guidance, businesses are subject to litigation risk and inconsistent outcomes. Moreover, the Senators urged the DOJ to provide further clarity, particularly because the issue of whether private websites must comply with the ADA “continues to be subject to conflicting judicial opinions.” Additionally, they pointed to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 standard, which governs website accessibility for federal government websites, and noted that if the government gets the benefit of clear guidance, then the public should as well.
On July 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to dismiss a plaintiff’s claim that a credit union’s website accessibility barriers violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the plaintiff is not a member of the credit union, nor can he become one. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last year the district court granted the credit union’s motion to dismiss on standing grounds because the plaintiff—who tests software that reads text aloud for visually impaired users to access content on the internet—had no plausible reason to use the credit union’s website because the website was directed at members of the credit union for which he was ineligible. The court found that the plaintiff lacked standing because he failed to allege “concrete and particularized” injuries when he claimed he suffered dignitary and informational harm stemming from his inability to access information on the website, and cited to a recent 4th Circuit decision in Griffin v. Dep’t of Labor Fed. Credit Union, which held that “a plaintiff who is legally barred from using a credit union’s services cannot demonstrate an injury that is either concrete or particularized.”
On appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed with the district court, finding that “Illinois law prevents [the plaintiff’s] dignitary harm from materializing into a concrete injury,” and that “indignation at violation of the law” is not concrete or particularized as is required to show standing. The appellate court also noted that the plaintiff’s informational harm claim failed as well because “[h]is alleged injury flows from the [c]redit [u]nion’s failure to support his software, not its refusal to disclose information about its services.”
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.
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss UDAAP at an American Bar Association webinar
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "What to expect: The new administration and regulatory changes" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “The future of fair lending” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Steven R. vonBerg to discuss "LO comp challenges" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss “The False Claims Act today” at the Federal Bar Association Qui Tam Section Roundtable