The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently issued a decision holding that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) applies to websites that connect customers to goods and services offered at a physical location.
In Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, the plaintiff, who is blind, brought suit against Domino’s for failing to “design, construct, maintain, and operate its [website and app] to be fully accessible to and independently usable by Mr. Robles and other blind or visually-impaired people,” in violation of the ADA. Plaintiff, who utilized screen-reading software that vocalized information on websites, tried unsuccessfully on at least two occasions to order a customized pizza from a Domino’s Pizza location.
The trial court granted summary judgment for Domino’s. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit considered 1) whether the ADA applies to websites and apps, 2) due process implications of applying the ADA to websites, and 3) jurisdictional concerns.
Key takeaways are as follows:
The ADA Applies to Websites and Apps that Facilitate Access to Goods and Services at a Physical Location
The Court clarified that the ADA applies to the services of a place of public accommodation, not merely services that occur in a place of public accommodation, noting that Domino’s website and app facilitated access to delivery or pickup at Domino’s brick-and-mortar location, which was itself a place of public accommodation. Thus, the Court found a sufficient enough nexus between Domino’s website and app and its offered goods and services to determine that the ADA did indeed apply.
In short, if a company’s website or app offers customers a direct link to services offered at a physical location, the ADA applies, and the company should include ways to make the website accessible to disabled persons.
The ADA does not Apply to Websites that are not Linked to a Physical Place in which to Access Goods and Services
In its analysis of the nexus between Domino’s website and its offered goods and services, the Court noted that the ADA only covers “actual, physical places where goods or services are open to the public, and places where the public gets those goods or services.” Citing Weyer v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., in which the ADA was held not to apply to a company’s allegedly discriminatory insurance policy, the Robles Court emphasized that the insurance policy did not concern accessibility to the company’s physical address, nor was the insurance policy a good offered by and at the company’s physical address. However, as stated above, the Court found a sufficient nexus between Domino’s website and goods and services to apply the ADA.
Summarized, when an offered good or service has nothing to do with a company’s physical location, the Court noted that the ADA does not apply. In this instance, it is important to note that the Court did not distinguish between delivery and pickup in its analysis of the nexus, as both required services that were directly associated with and heavily advertised for Domino’s brick-and-mortar location.
There are no Due Process Violations or Jurisdictional Concerns Associated with Applying the ADA to Websites
Domino’s main argument was that it did not receive fair notice of the specific guidance on how to make its website and app available to blind customers because the DOJ never provided any recommendations. It argued that the lower court was right when it held that the courts lacked primary jurisdiction to determine the issue because “DOJ ‘regulations and technical assistance are necessary for the Court to determine what obligations a regulated individual or institution must abide by in order to comply with Title III.’”
The Ninth Circuit disagreed on the due process issue, finding sufficient that the Department of Justice has “repeatedly affirmed the application of [T]itle III to Web sites of public accommodations.” The Court further observed that specific regulations merely supplement statutory obligations and thus held a lack of a specific regulation cannot eliminate an existing statutory obligation.
The Court also reversed the district court on the jurisdictional issue, stating that a Court should not invoke primary jurisdiction when the agency responsible for regulation of the issue is aware of but has expressed no interest in the matter, and when referral to the agency would significantly postpone the ruling. The Court noted that in 2010, the DOJ had sent out notice of a proposed rulemaking signaling that it might issue regulations regarding website accessibility, but withdrew it in 2017. Thus, the Court expressed that the DOJ was aware of but lacked interest in the issue. The Court went further and noted that staying the case until the DOJ provided guidance would needlessly delay any ruling on the matter. Thus, the Court held that it did in fact have jurisdiction over the issue.
Put concisely, companies are all on “fair notice” that the ADA applies to websites connecting customers to a physical location even though the DOJ has not provided specific blueprints for what accommodations must be made.
The Court left open how companies must comply with the ADA’s requirements
Although the Court noted that accommodations must be “effective,” it did not rule as to what a company must do to satisfy the ADA’s requirements. It noted that once the lawsuit was filed, Domino’s added a hotline to its app and website to assist disabled customers with screen-reading software. The Court held that without any discovery showing the effectiveness of such a measure, it would be inappropriate to determine that Domino’s met its obligations under the ADA.
The Court did not reach an opinion on whether Domino’s website or app actually complied with the ADA. Instead, it remanded the case back to the district court to determine whether Domino’s website and app provide the blind with effective communication and full and equal enjoyment of its products and services.
In closing, companies should be mindful of the ADA when designing their websites. If the website provides a connection to a good or service offered at a physical location, then the ADA applies, and the company should ensure that disabled persons have sufficient and effective access to its goods and services offered through that website.