Despite lacking any brick and mortar location, a federal court judge in Vermont concluded that Scribd’s Web site constituted a “place of public accommodation,” requiring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A group of blind consumers charged that Scribd’s membership program—where users pay a monthly fee to read e-books from the site’s library—illegally excludes blind individuals because the Web site and mobile app are not compatible with screen reader software.
Scribd moved to dismiss, arguing that the site is not covered by the ADA because it is not a physical location.
Rejecting this position, U.S. District Court Judge William K. Sessions III emphasized the intent behind the statute. “Now that the Internet plays such a critical role in the personal and professional lives of Americans, excluding disabled persons from access to covered entities that use it as their principal means of reaching the public would defeat the purpose of this important civil rights legislation,” he wrote.
The ADA contains 12 categories of “public accommodation.” Although Scribd argued that the meaning of “place of public accommodation” was clear and unambiguous, the court said the fact that reasonable jurists have reached different conclusions about how far the protections of Title III extend “reveals some measure of ambiguity in the text of the statute.”
Some courts—the Third, Sixth, and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals—have adopted a narrow interpretation of the ADA, requiring a sufficient connection between the discrimination alleged by plaintiffs and a physical place. The Eleventh Circuit has taken a “somewhat more expansive vein,” while on the broad end of statutory interpretation, the First and Seventh Circuits have read Title III to apply even in the absence of some connection to a physical place, Judge Sessions said.
“While no circuit court has directly addressed whether a website with no physical retail outlet or building open to the public can be a place of public accommodation under Title III, clearly there is more than one reasonable interpretation of the language at issue here,” the court said.
Given these differences of opinion, Judge Sessions found the statute to be ambiguous and considered sources outside of the text, including legislative history, the position of the Department of Justice, and common sense.
“[P]erhaps most importantly, reading the statute as Scribd argues the court should read it would lead to absurd results,” the court wrote. “Requiring a physical structure or some connection to a physical threshold would result in arbitrary treatment. For example, it would make little sense if a customer who bought insurance from someone selling policies door to door was not covered but someone buying the same policy in the parent company’s office was covered. It is highly unlikely Congress intended such inconsistent results.”
Taking a liberal approach while reading the statute, Judge Sessions found that the “plaintiffs have persuasively argued that Scribd’s services fall within at least one of the following categories: ‘place of exhibition or entertainment,’ a ‘sales or rental establishment,’ a ‘service establishment,’ a ‘library,’ a ‘gallery,’ or a ‘place of public display or collection.’”
The court denied Scribd’s motion to dismiss, concluding that the plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that the site owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation.
To read the opinion in National Federation of the Blind v. Scribd Inc., click here.
Why it matters: The decision intensifies the split among courts that have considered the application of the ADA to online entities. While the majority position requires that a Web site have a sufficient connection to a brick and mortar location for ADA liability to attach, other courts, including Judge Sessions and a federal court judge in Massachusetts in a Netflix case, have found the ADA applies to a strictly Internet business. As noted in the Scribd decision, the Department of Justice has taken the position that e-tailers fall under the purview of the ADA, physical location or not, and is currently promulgating regulations to that effect.