Is Your Website Accessible and Are You Liable if it Isn't?

Dec 19, 2019 Published Article

To anyone who does business online - ­beware. While the ADA has been in play for years, it did not necessarily account for all the technological advances that have been made over time. Specifically, when it comes to accommodations - what accommodations can and should be made within a website, and whether accommodations should be made on all websites or just some. However, because of this, a new type of lawsuit has emerged, and is slowly becoming more prominent. Since the Supreme Court refused to clarify this particular area of law, we must turn to the recent Ninth Circuit Ruling in Robles v. Domino's for guidance.

What Happened in Robles v. Domino's?

As part of a spree of litigation, Guillermo Robles had sued Domino's Pizza due to the lack of accessibility for the Domino's smartphone application and website. Mr. Robles is blind, and neither the website nor application, which allowed users to order Domino's food for pickup or delivery, and offer exclusive discounts, were accessible to him. The Domino's website and application were both incompatible with his chosen software, prompting a lawsuit in 2016. After a short success in the trial court due to the lack of guidance given to websites and applications in how to accommodate for the ADA, the Ninth Circuit overruled the trial court, finding that: (1) the ADA applied to Domino's as there was a nexus between the Domino's website and app, and physical restaurants; and (2) the lack of guidance to Domino's did not violate its right to due process.

The ultimate effect of Robles v. Domino's found that businesses cannot necessarily avoid ADA litigation, even though the federal government hasn't given guidelines on how to make a website or mobile application accessible.

What Happened at the Supreme Court?

Back in June, Domino's appealed the Ninth Circuit decision, prompting a flurry of amicus briefs. This was done, in part, because there is a circuit split between the Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits requiring that a website has a physical nexus to a place of public accommodation (i.e. a "brick-and-mortar" location), and the First, Second, Fifth and Seventh Circuits, which will rule that a website is a place of public accommodation if it does something a place of public accommodation would do (i.e. Netflix showing films). In addition, parties aside from Domino's have been looking for further guidance given the lack of comments from the Department of Justice and Congress. This is especially relevant because the Department of Justice has been considering the application of the ADA to the internet from 1996 to 2018, resulting in some inconsistent comments regarding the need for rule making.

This had pushed Domino's and others to attempt to end the ongoing regulation through litigation and furthermore, due to the decision in the Ninth Circuit, to avoid the Domino’s holding from creating a "defacto" requirement.

How Do You Prepare?

While there is an off-chance that this kind of civil ADA litigation will resurface to the Supreme Court, these claims tend to settle relatively quickly, and ultimately may prevent courts from providing any solid or concrete guidance on accessibility until either the Department of Justice provides guidelines or Congress amends the ADA to specifically address website accessibility.

However, a determination of what is "accessible" may be put forward due to the new proposed regulations for the CCPA set forth by California's Attorney General. The proposed regulations specifically state that a privacy policy should be accessible to consumers with disabilities, and at a minimum, should provide information on how a consumer with a disability can access the notice in an alternative format. Importantly, this removes the arguments on whether or not the website would have to be a place of public accommodation. It is now widely applicable to every website. Given the CCPA is to be enforced by the Attorney General, this presents a possible situation where the state of California will determine what is accessible through enforcement actions.

In the absence of guidelines however, you have four actions you can take to protect your business.

  1. Learn the standards.There are unofficial accessibility guidelines such as WCAG 2.0AA that are treated as an industry standard. While this may not completely protect you from claims made by litigants, this will help your business move towards compliance.
  2. Know and negotiate.When dealing with third party service providers or developers, make sure that accessibility is brought up, discussed, and addressed before moving forward with using that service provider or developer. If the developer or service provider cannot assure that their product is accessible, be prepared to walk away. A business may be found liable for the inaccessibility of an online service provider used by the business to provide the business's services.
  3. Beta test often.As technology changes or websites are updated to be more device-friendly, new code or functions may make a website less accessible for accessibility devices and software. In addition, just because a website meets the WCAG 2.0AA, this may not account for all accessibility issues, so it would be prudent and beneficial to be thorough.
  4. Get help.Consider hiring third parties to help you evaluate a plan for accessibility and keep you up-to date for online accessibility issues.

Nonetheless, there is still a significant risk and uncertainty for anyone who does business online, as any business has to be aware of the current general framework of laws and industry accessibility guidelines to hope they meet the murky definition of "accessible."