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Ninth Circuit Decision Allows Website Accessibility Case to Proceed Against Domino’s

Businesses with websites have been besieged by plaintiffs seeking to assert ADA claims that e-commerce websites fail to comply with accessibility requirements. A recent Ninth Circuit decision finding that the ADA applies to websites and mobile apps strengthens these plaintiffs’ positions in what is at best a grey area for businesses to address compliance.

The case, Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, centers on an unsuccessful attempt by defendant Robles, a blind man, to place an online order for a customized pizza from a nearby Domino’s. Robles alleged that Domino’s website and mobile application were constructed in a way that rendered his screen-reading software ineffectual, and as such, Domino’s had failed to comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (UCRA), California Civil Code § 51.

Title III of the ADA states that a place of “public accommodation” engages in unlawful discrimination if it fails to “take such steps as may be necessary to ensure that not individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(iii).

The District Court held that Title III of the ADA applied to Domino’s website and mobile application. Domino’s, however, asserted that applying the ADA to its website and mobile application would violate its due process rights as the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) had failed to issue specific guidelines outlining exactly what is required in order to comply with the ADA. Persuaded by the argument, the district court granted Domino’s motion to dismiss without prejudice, and this appeal to the Ninth Circuit followed.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court that the ADA applies to Domino’s website and mobile applications, as a lack of accessibility to those sites obstructs access to the goods and services made available at Domino’s physical locations, which are in turn places of “public accommodation” as identified in the statute.

The appeals court did, however, diverge from the district court’s analysis when it came to Domino’s due process argument. The appeals court acknowledged that the DOJ had not issued specific compliance guidelines. However, the Ninth Circuit opined that the ADA “articulates comprehensible standards to which Domino’s conduct must conform,” and that constitutional due process “only requires that Domino’s receive fair notice of its legal duties, not a blueprint for compliance with its statutory obligations.” Ultimately, the court held that Domino’s had received fair notice of its obligations under the ADA, and that the onus is not on Congress or the DOJ to provide a specific directions for compliance.

Although the court did not make a determination as to whether or not Domino’s website and mobile application actually complied with the ADA, it did suggest in a footnote that the availability of a 24/7 toll-free phone line for individuals with disabilities could result in a summary judgment favorable to Domino’s, but only after discovery on the effectiveness of the phone line has proceeded.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court order and remanded the case to proceed in district court.

Takeaway: As plaintiffs continue to bring these website accessibility lawsuits, website operators should ensure compliance with the ADA in order to avoid being the next target. An absence of formal or specific guidance is not a valid justification for noncompliance. Website operators should seek legal guidance promptly to address compliance. 

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