After an explosion of “website accessibility” cases in recent years, where plaintiffs are suing Internet-based businesses under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) alleging that websites are not accessible (generally claimed by visually impaired people), there is a ray of sunshine for some companies. Whether ADA Title III even applies to Internet-based businesses (as opposed to businesses with physical storefronts) has been the subject of ongoing debate and inconsistent rulings in the courts.
In Martinez vs. Cot’n Wash, Inc.., the Second Appellate District declined to extend the meaning of “place of public accommodation” under Title III to digital-only websites. Thus, an Unruh law claim based on a violation of Title III cannot extend to purely digital websites and does not constitute a violation of Title III. Based on this, those attempting to recover against a digital-only website can only establish a claim under the Unruh Act under the theory of “denial of access to a commercial establishment based on intentional discrimination “.
Defendant Cot’n Wash, Inc. (“CW”) is a public website that lists, advertises and sells its own cleaning products. However, CW does not have a physical location and does not offer its products in physical storefronts. The plaintiff is blind and alleged that he was unable to navigate the defendant’s website despite the plaintiff’s use of screen readers, which he typically used to access the internet and read content. In their original complaint, the plaintiff alleged that the CW website did not conform to WCAG standards (a common protocol for making information more easily accessible to blind people) or anything like that, and therefore, he was unable to fully and freely use the website because CW had discriminated against him and others with similar visual disabilities.
The trial court upheld defendant’s opposition to the original complaint without leave to amend and dismissed the case, stating that plaintiff had not established an allegation of violation of Title III or intentional discrimination under of the Unruh law.
The main issue on appeal was whether the plaintiff had alleged facts to support one of two possible theories under the Unruh Act: (1) intentional discrimination, or (2) whether the defendant’s website constituted “a place of public accommodation” in relation to Title III. of the ADA.
The Court of Appeal concluded that international discrimination requires “that a claimant not be able to rely on the effects of an apparently neutral policy on a particular group. . . deduce from these effects alone a discriminatory intent”. Rather, the plaintiff must allege facts that demonstrate deliberate and intentional conduct. Notification of the alleged issue was not sufficient, where an apparently neutral website that did not contain explicit discriminatory statements or intentions, but allegedly failed to address known discriminatory effects, does not support an allegation of intentional discrimination . Additionally, the Court of Appeal concluded that a website business is not a place requiring public hosting.
Martinez’s second theory of liability under the Unruh Act also fails for a host of reasons. The Second District observed that federal courts offer conflicting opinions and that California courts have “not reached[ed] the legal question of whether the ADA applies to websites unrelated to a physical location. And, the Court looked at the ordinary meaning of the word “place” and the overwhelming support that the term generally implies a physical location. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that “place” refers to a physical space, under a New Jersey law prohibiting discrimination in “places of public accommodation.” Finally, the Court of Appeals analyzed the federal regulations and found that the lack of clarification of the application to websites under Title III supported the decision of the Court of Appeals.
The decision seemed concerned that the purposes of ADA Title III would serve to construe the websites as being covered as “a place of public accommodation”, but it was not the Court’s duty to adopt a position that neither Congress nor the DOJ has officially endorsed. While there may be clarification in the future, at least one California court now finds that companies that only offer websites are not covered by ADA Title III, so it won’t support a claim under the Unruh Act based on violation of Title III.