Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability “in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods [and] services . . . of any place of public accommodation.” Whether a website constitutes a “place of public accommodation” under the ADA has generated a great deal of controversy in courts across the United States in recent years. In fact, federal circuit courts are split as to whether websites, as online-only venues, constitute public accommodations. The importance of understanding the state of the law on this issue, as well as how it applies to businesses operating websites throughout the nation, cannot be overstated.
California Court Clarifies Position on Websites and the ADA
In a recent case, Martinez v. Cot’n Wash Inc., the California Court of Appeals ruled, in part, that “retail websites without any connection to a physical space” cannot constitute a “place of accommodation” under the ADA. In Martinez, plaintiff alleged that the defendant violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (“Unruh”) by intentionally maintaining a retail website that was inaccessible to the visually impaired (due to incompatibility with plaintiff’s screen-reading software). Please note that Unruh, also known as California Civil Code Section 51, “provides protection from discrimination by all business establishments in California, including housing and public accommodations, because of age, ancestry, color, disability, national origin, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation.”
Here, the trial court concluded: “(1) the alleged inaccessibility of [defendant’s] website did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act . . . specifically Title III . . . and (2) the complaint did not allege sufficient facts to establish [defendant’s] discriminatory intent, which the Unruh Act requires in the absence of an ADA violation.” The California Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling on both issues. Of particular interest to companies that operate online-only retail websites, the Court concluded that defendant’s website did not constitute a “place of accommodation” under the ADA. Specifically, the Court noted, “Under current law, we cannot read this phrase as including retail websites without any connection to a physical space.” To support this decision, the Court pointed out, among other things, that: (1) the statute does not include a category that encompasses websites; and (2) Congress has not amended the ADA to clarify this matter. Further, the Department of Justice, the regulatory agency charged with responsibility for implementing the ADA, has failed to issue meaningful regulations or specific guidance insofar as website accessibility is concerned.
Is Your Business’ Website a “Place of Accommodation” under the ADA?
The short answer to this question: it depends. According to the Martinez decision, under California State law, an online-only retail website is not a place of public accommodation under the ADA. But as the decision points out, “[T]he [federal] courts have reached different conclusions on the issue whether a website is a public accommodation.” This means that depending on what jurisdiction you are in, your website may be considered a “place of accommodation” under these circumstances and, as such, subject to ADA requirements.
Bearing in mind that the law is unsettled at best, website operators must be aware of applicable ADA requirements, as well as how to ensure accessibility compliance. To safeguard your business, it is necessary to provide appropriate services to your customers. In addition, to protect against liability, it is essential that you consult with experienced attorneys.