Pennsylvania Ruling Bucks the Trend in ADA Website Cases

Lawsuit dismissed for failure to allege a physical nexus

A recent decision in the Western District of Pennsylvania has provided a rare defendant’s victory in an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) website accessibility lawsuit. In Murphy v. Spongelle LLC (decided on January 24, 2024), the plaintiff alleged that Spongelle’s website did not meet the ADA requirements for accessibility to visually impaired individuals. There have been thousands of similar lawsuits over the past decade, and the main reason for this proliferation is that there are still no clear guidelines for ADA compliance that businesses can follow when setting up a website. What made Spongelle unusual is that Judge Richard A. Lanzillo dismissed the lawsuit, raising critical questions about whether a website can be deemed a “public accommodation” under Title III of the ADA.[1]

The legal tussle unfolded against the backdrop of the rapidly evolving world of e-commerce. The visually impaired plaintiff alleged that Spongelle’s website impeded his ability to fully access the company’s products and services through his screen-reader software. Spongelle responded to the lawsuit with a motion to dismiss, arguing that the ADA, enacted in 1990, did not anticipate the rise of the Internet and e-commerce’s growth into a dominant force in recent years. Spongelle convinced Judge Lanzillo that there are legitimate questions as to whether Congress ever considered the applicability of website accessibility when drafting the ADA.

Spongelle’s motion to dismiss centered on ADA Title III’s requirement of a “physical nexus.” While ADA plaintiffs all claim website inaccessibility in this type of case, the court (unlike many other courts that have ruled on virtually identical cases) held that the ADA focuses on physical places of public accommodation. Mere inaccessibility of a website may not be enough for an ADA lawsuit, according to Judge Lanzillo, because a website can be considered a place of public accommodation only if there is a connection to a physical location. Ultimately, the court dismissed Murphy’s lawsuit primarily because it failed to allege any facts supporting a nexus between a physical place of public accommodation owned, operated, or controlled by Spongelle and the goods or services Spongelle allegedly denied to the plaintiff in a discriminatory manner. 

The court’s dismissal was without prejudice, meaning that the plaintiff was given an opportunity to file an amended complaint addressing the deficiencies in his original complaint. We will continue to follow this case.

[1] Legal precedent on this issue can differ from one jurisdiction to another. Pennsylvania is part of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which also includes New Jersey, Delaware and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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