California Appeals Court Relies on Nexus Theory to Reverse Dismissal of ADA Website Violation Complaint

Troutman Pepper

Troutman Pepper

The California Court of Appeals, Fourth Appellate District, recently reversed a lower court ruling against a visually impaired plaintiff who alleged that a credit union’s website was incompatible with screen-reader software. The plaintiff claimed that the credit union violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act under a theory that the website violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which was adopted by the Unruh Act, and that the defendant’s actions constituted intentional discrimination prohibited by the Unruh Act. The San Diego Superior Court dismissed the case shortly before jury selection, when the court concluded that the pleading had not sufficiently alleged that the website was a “public accommodation” under the ADA. The Court of Appeals concluded that the Superior Court erred in granting a nonsuit (which was treated as a judgment on the pleadings) on the public accommodation element of the ADA claim because the plaintiff alleged a sufficient nexus between the offending website and the defendant’s physical locations — the prevailing standard for public accommodation in most federal circuits and applied by the California appellate court in Thurston v. Midvale Corp.

In Martinez v. San Diego County Credit Union, No. 37-2017-00024673-CU-CR-NC (Cal. Ct. App. June 19, 2020), the visually impaired individual relied on screen-reader software to read website content, but the credit union’s website allegedly had several access barriers that interfered with use of the screen reader, including (1) a lack of alternative text for graphic images; (2) empty or redundant links, resulting in poor screen-reader navigation; and (3) missing form labels to describe the function of different form controls, allegedly confusing screen-reader users. The plaintiff alleged that the credit union website was integrated with the credit union’s physical locations, including a branch/ATM locator, descriptions of products and services available, and benefits related to the credit union facilities and services. He further alleged that he was unable to independently investigate the locations, services, and products available to him due to the barriers posed by the poor functionality of the screen-reader software.

During a hearing on the parties’ motions in limine shortly before jury selection, the trial judge requested that the parties provide briefing on the federal circuit split as to whether a nexus between the website and the defendant’s physical locations was required under the ADA, given the lack of California appellate authority on the issue. After the briefing and a discussion between the parties in chambers, the court sua sponte granted a nonsuit based on the court’s determination that neither the Unruh Act nor the ADA applied to a website in the absence of allegations that it was a nexus to a physical building. The trial court asserted that its opinion was based on the Third, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuit majority view that “public accommodation” meant a physical structure, but did not reference the “nexus” theory adopted by those circuits.

In its de novo review, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court erred in dismissing the complaint. The Court of Appeals discussed both the minority view, held by the First, Second, and Seventh Circuits, that the ADA applies to websites on their own as “service establishment[s],” as well as the majority view applied by the trial court. That majority view, followed by the Third, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits, applies a narrower statutory definition of a “public accommodation,” which requires a physical location but recognizes that a website can act as a nexus to a physical location that is subject to the ADA when a website’s access barriers interfere with an individual’s ability to use or enjoy the services offered at a connected physical location. Since the trial court’s decision, the California Court of Appeals has applied the nexus standard in Thurston.

The Court of Appeals further elaborated that the nexus theory is applicable and consistent with the ADA requirement to supply auxiliary aids to provide equal access, citing the regulation that “a public accommodation must furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities,” which includes “accessible electronic and information technology.” The Court of Appeals cited recent cases in other jurisdictions involving credit unions where the courts determined the nexus test was satisfied when the allegedly defective website was a service of the brick-and-mortar location and provided access to information regarding services available and branches and ATM locations.

Applying the same reasoning, the Court of Appeals determined that the complaint was sufficient to bring the plaintiff’s case within the ADA standard, by connecting the information available on the website to the credit union’s physical locations, because the plaintiff asserted that the website formatting did not work with screen-reader software, making him unable to use the website to independently find credit union locations or the services offered as compared to a sighted individual.

The Court of Appeals did not reach a broader determination as to whether a website itself constitutes a public accommodation governed by the ADA even without a nexus to the defendant’s physical location. Likewise, the Court of Appeals noted that the credit union’s allegations challenging the WCAG 2.0 accessibility guidelines were not within the bounds of the appeal, due to the judgment on the pleadings, and were not ripe for review.

This opinion further strengthens the basis for the application of the nexus theory by the majority of federal circuits, and leaves open possible factual defenses regarding the connection between a website and goods and services offered by a company.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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