Are website operators required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Yes, but the compliance standard is undefined. In Robles v. Dominos Pizza LLC (Case No. 42 CV 16-06599 SJO (C.D. Cal. Mar. 20, 2017)), a federal court in California dismissed a class action lawsuit that asserted Domino's Pizza discriminated against Americans with disabilities on its web and mobile sites. Specifically, the plaintiff had complained that the company failed to make its website and mobile app accessible to blind or visually-impaired people who utilise screen reader software to use the Internet. The court found that website operators do not currently have to offer the specific accommodations identified by the plaintiff in this case but that some form of accommodation is required.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and its applicability to websites
The Americans with Disabilities Act ('ADA') prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities. The ADA does not specifically reference websites or mobile sites and US courts have been split on the question of whether online services are covered.
Some US courts, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice ('DOJ'), have held in various opinions that certain provisions of the ADA are applicable to websites. For example, they have required retailers to revise their websites to afford screen reading and voice over software programs the ability to interpret websites audibly for the visually impaired. Notwithstanding these opinions, the DOJ has delayed for many years the anticipated rulemaking for website accessibility under the ADA. In the meantime, the agency has insisted that websites comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines ('WCAG') 2.0AA or AAA, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium ('W3C'), a third party international consortium that develops web standards.
The decision in Robles v. Dominos Pizza LLC
The plaintiff had complained that Domino's Pizza failed "to design, construct, maintain, and operate its website [and mobile application] to be fully accessible to and independently usable by [himself] and other blind or visually-impaired people" using screen readers pursuant to version 2.0 of W3C's Guidelines, thereby preventing him from completing purchases.
The court framed the key question as "whether and to what extent the ADA, a statute enacted before the widespread adoption of the Internet, regulates the manner in which companies can permissibly engage in e-commerce." For purposes of the analysis, the court assumed the applicability of Title III of the ADA and rejected Domino's argument that the suit should be dismissed because the ADA was not drafted with the specific regulation of virtual spaces in mind. It noted the nexus between Domino's websites and its brick-and-mortar pizza stores and found that any operator whose products or services are related to physical stores open to the public are required to provide accessible web and mobile websites.
However, the court sided with Domino's on its due process challenge. Domino's had argued that "the DOJ has not promulgated concrete guidance regarding the accessibility standards an e-commerce webpage must meet, much less required that companies operating such webpages comply with the specific standards Plaintiff references in his Complaint." The court found merit in this challenge and rejected the plaintiff's attempt to impose specific technical requirements on all regulated entities without specifying a particular level of technical compliance and without the DOJ offering meaningful guidance on the topic. The court held such a request "flies in the face of due process."
Overall, the decision gives website and mobile app owners the defence that it would be a violation of their right to due process to require them to revise existing websites to comply with industry standard guidelines not yet approved by any federal agency. To address this lack of approved guidelines, the court called upon the DOJ to issue implementing regulations on web accessibility under Title III.
In the short term, operators of websites and mobile sites should try to comply with ADA requirements to the extent practicable. This is particularly true for any operator whose products or services are related to physical stores. For guidance, companies can look to the WCAG 2.0AA or AAA, developed by the W3C. Companies can take some comfort in the fact that these stringent and potentially burdensome standards have not yet been adopted as the governing standard, and other, less onerous ways of accommodating the disabled may provide some defence.
In the long term, companies should monitor new legislation or pronouncements from the DOJ as to which set of standards will be applied to websites and mobile apps.