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Online Retailers Beware: Court Holds Website Violates ADA Despite Lack of Physical Store

Courts across the country continue to weigh in on the issue of website accessibility. Last week, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire denied a motion to dismiss filed by online food delivery servicer Blue Apron.  In denying the motion, the court found that Blue Apron’s website is a place of public accommodation – despite the fact that Blue Apron operates only online and has no traditional brick and mortar locations. Access Now, Inc. v. Blue Apron, LLC, Case No. 17-cv-00116, Dkt. No. 46 (D. N.H. Nov. 8, 2017).

In so finding, the court relied on binding precedent in the First Circuit, and noted that other Courts of Appeals, namely the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Circuits, have held that in order to be considered a “public accommodation,” an online business must have a nexus to an actual, physical space. Id. at pp. 9-10.  This decision highlights that the issue of website accessibility, especially as it applies to online only businesses, remains a contested issue.

The New Hampshire federal court also found that despite the lack of regulations from the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), “Blue Apron must still comply with Title III’s more general prohibition on disability-based discrimination….” Id. at pp. 14-15.  The court noted that there might have been a due process violation if plaintiffs had “attempt[ed] to hold Blue Apron liable for failure to comply with independent accessibility standards not promulgated by the DOJ, such as the WCAG 2.0 AA standards….” Id. at p. 20. 

DOJ Puts Website Accessibility Regulations on Inactive List

Retailers and other businesses that have been waiting for the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to promulgate regulations concerning website accessibility under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) will now have to wait a lot longer. Eight years after the DOJ began the rulemaking process on this issue, it has now listed the rulemaking as “inactive.”

Federal agencies typically provide public notice of the regulations that are under development twice a year in the Unified Regulatory Agenda. The first Agenda was issued by the Trump Administration on July 20, 2017, and contains noteworthy changes from the last Agenda issued by the Obama Administration.

For the first time, the Agenda breaks down all agency regulatory actions into three categories: active, long-term, or inactive. While the Agenda does not define these terms, only the active and long-term matters receive a description and projected deadlines. The inactive matters appear in a document called “2017 Inactive Actions.”

Recently, courts have filled the void left by the absence of government regulations with a patchwork of conflicting decisions. As we have previously reported, the Northern District of California granted a motion to dismiss a website accessibility case under the primary jurisdiction doctrine. In Robles v. Dominos Pizza LLC, the court found that holding Dominos liable when the DOJ still has not promulgated website accessibility regulations would violate Dominos’ due process rights.

As we also reported, however, the Southern District of Florida ruled, following a bench trial in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores,

Website Accessibility Update: California Federal Court Denies Hobby Lobby’s Motion to Dismiss

Another website accessibility decision against a retailer, this time involving Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. in the Central District of California, highlights the uncertainty of the law and of litigating such cases while courts continue to reach different conclusions.

In Gorecki v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Case No. 2:17-cv-01131-JFW-SK (C.D. Cal. June 15, 2017), the district court denied Hobby Lobby’s motion to dismiss and held that the retailer’s website constitutes a “public accommodation” under Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  In so holding, the court noted that the website allows consumers to purchase products, search for store locations, view special pricing offers, obtain coupons, and purchase gift cards.

The court also relied on Department of Justice (“DOJ”) regulations requiring public accommodations to use auxiliary aids and services to “communicate effectively” with disabled customers.

This decision was issued only two days after a federal judge in the Southern District of Florida handed down a trial verdict against retailer Winn-Dixie. As we recently reported in a blog post and alert, Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., No. 16-cv-23020, Dkt. No. 63 (S.D. Fla. June 13, 2017) was the first website accessibility case to go to trial. In that case, the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0 were adopted as part of the injunctive terms of the decision.

The Hobby Lobby court’s decision is in stark contrast with another recent website accessibility decision from the Northern District of California, which dismissed a website accessibility action under the “primary jurisdiction”

Retailer Loses ADA Website Accessibility Trial

Retailers with both physical locations and a website should take note that a United States District Court has held that Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) because its website was inaccessible to the visually impaired plaintiff.

The Court’s decision in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., No. 16-cv-23020, Dkt. No. 63 (S.D. Fla. June 13, 2017) is significant for a number of reasons.  First, Gil appears to be the first website accessibility lawsuit to go to trial.

Second, despite the fact that Winn-Dixie does not conduct sales through its website, the Court found that the website was “heavily integrated” with the physical store locations because customers can use the website to access digital coupons, find store locations, and refill prescriptions through the website.

Third, the Court considered the cost of making Winn-Dixie’s website accessible in light of the total cost to launch and upgrade a website. While the Court noted that Winn-Dixie’s estimate of $250,000 “seems high,” the Court ultimately found that it “pales in comparison to the $2 million Winn-Dixie spent in 2015 to open the website and the $7 million it spent in 2016 to remake the website.” Gil, Dkt. No. 63 at 7.

Finally, the Court’s decision includes the specific terms of an injunction. Included among those terms are that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0 were set forth as the accessibility standard and that Winn Dixie shall require third party vendors who participate on its website to be fully accessible.

Retailers should take

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