The constellation Canis Major rises and falls with the sun during the hottest part July and August; hence the “dog days of summer.” Although only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun* the courts have been busy working in air conditioned chambers on ADA and FHA matters:
Just what is an accessible website?
The first sentence of this injunction seems to violate the general rule against injunctions that simply order compliance with the law. See, e.g., E.E.O.C. v. AutoZone, Inc., 707 F.3d 824, 842 (7th Cir. 2013). As the Court observes, there are no regulatory requirements for websites, so the first sentence is just an order to follow the ADA.
The second sentence sounds better, but imposes an impossible obligation on the website owner; the very same impossible obligation that every court applying the ADA to websites has imposed. The phrase “screen reading technology” embraces all the available screen reading software, including versions that may be out of date and no longer compatible with modern browsers. This may be technically impossible. Worse, however, is the phrase “accessible to blind or low vision individuals.” This phrase only invites litigation because no one knows just what “accessible” means in this context.
In the world of physical spaces “accessibility” is defined by the standards published by the Department of Justice. A store or building is “accessible” if it meets those standards even if not every disabled person can in fact enter the store or buy its goods and services and even if a person with a disability suffers some inconvenience in using the facility.
For websites there is no clear line between being inaccessible and being merely difficult to use, and difficulty in use may depend on the training and experience of the screen reader user. There is also no clear line between what parts of a website must be accessible in order to comply with the ADA’s prohibition against discrimination in the “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations” of a website. A poorly designed website may be hard to use for non-disabled users; does that mean it is accessible if it is equally hard to use for those with disabilities? Modern websites also frequently include bells and whistles that are intended more to attract purchasers than to facilitate their purchases. If a disabled user can locate and buy what they are seeking is it important that they also have some kind of access to images intended only to catch the eye? I suspect the plaintiff in this case will never consider taking on these questions, but they cannot be ignored by courts that must finally order ADA compliance in some form.
After all the shouting, Robles v. Dominos ends with an argument about technical details.
In Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, 2021 WL 2945562 (C.D. Cal. June 23, 2021) the District Court began the process of actually wrapping up the saga of Robles v. Dominos. Ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment the Court made a number of rulings and observations that may trigger even more appeals.
Discussing the problem of just what “accessible” means the Court made this observation:
Had Defendant’s expert determined that its website was fully accessible, the Court would be forced to wade into a sticky question: what level of technological capabilities is required of a blind website user such that the failure of JAWS technology is necessarily the fault of the website owner? However, Defendant’s expert, using up-to-date technology, found that the website was not fully accessible.
A sticky question indeed since learning to use screenreader software is not that easy. The court found a way to avoid these problems by ordering compliance with WCAG 2.0, a standard that like the ADA physical access standards claims to be independent of any user’s abilities. How the Court squares this with its own earlier observation that WCAG 2.0 compliance is not synonymous with ADA accessibility isn’t discussed. I imagine an appeal is in the offing.
Turning to the 9th Circuit’s requirement of a nexus between a physical store and a website or app the Court found that despite the fact the local Dominos stores were franchises while the website and app were owned by the corporation the necessary nexus existed. This looks like an appealable issue as well since “nexus” remains a poorly defined concept that has been very narrowly interpreted in the 11th Circuit.²
Although the plaintiff has clearly won this round the case is not over. Accessibility of the device app for Dominos was found to be the subject of a fact dispute that will require a trial. And this case can be filed under supplement jurisdiction of Unruh Act claims retained (see below). Stay tuned for what the inevitable future developments.
Bar seating – yes, wheelchair accessible seating is required.
I’ve written before about the problem posed by accessible seating at a bar.¹ In Mortland v. Loc. Cantina Dublin LLC, 2021 WL 3033355, at *12 (S.D. Ohio July 19, 2021) the court had no trouble finding that accessible seating next to a bar was not sufficient to meet the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design although it would have been sufficient under the original ADAAG. With the observation that “Enjoying a drink at a bar can be one of life’s simple pleasures” the court rejected the notion that seating nearby was enough. The notion that the ADA requires equivalent experiences in restaurants and shops as opposed to equal access to goods and services is one that ignores the fundamental reality that those with disabilities cannot have the same experience in some cases and that measuring equality of experience between those with and without disabilities is a hopelessly subjective task. Finally, in a hopefully soon to be irrelevant holding the court observed that the 5% accessible seating requirement in the ADA applies to a restaurant in its usual configuration; not in a reduced seating configuration due to Covid-19.
Counter clutter in theory and in fact.
Fernandez v. O’Reilly Auto Enterprises, LLC, 2021 WL 3403742 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 3, 2021) is one of those rare ADA cases that went to trial, meaning that the truth, rather than the willingness of the plaintiff to allege things, mattered. The evidence showed two things; the ADA compliant service counter had some stuff on it, and that the stuff did not make it impossible for the plaintiff to use the counter. Defense judgment.(4)
Mootness – On the way is not the same as being there
Fernandez et al v. Duke University, 2021 WL 3207244, at *4 (M.D.N.C. July 29, 2021) has a good discussion of issues concerning standing, but the important message for businesses engaged in website litigation is that until a website (or a physical space for that matter) is accessible a lawsuit is not moot. Duke’s argument that it was in the process of replacing its alumni web portal wasn’t enough to moot a claim that the old portal was inaccessible.
And for dismissal – too soon is too soon
Defendants anxious to get rid of an ADA claim they think has no merit may be tempted to raise substantive defenses in a Rule 12(b) motion. Johnson v. Garden Court Inn, LLC, 2021 WL 3209721, at *5 (N.D. Cal. July 29, 2021) explains why this won’t work. When a business chooses to defend an ADA claim choosing when to raise defenses is critical to avoid wasting money on futile motions.³
A similar problem came up in Whitaker v. Surf & Turf, LLC., 2021 WL 3427122, at *5 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 5, 2021), with the defendant claiming that an allegation that the defendant’s tables lacked knee and toe space was not sufficiently specific. Just exactly when an ADA complaint lacks specificity can depend on the particular judge and complaint, so the money spent on this kind of motion to dismiss might be better used on substantive defenses (or remediation).
ADA non-compliance as evidence of negligence
In Pandya v Marriott Hotel Services, 2021 WL 3464263, at *10 (N.D. Ga. Aug. 5, 2021) the court followed Georgia state court precedent to find that “evidence that the threshold failed to comply with ADA standards “constitutes some evidence from which the jury could find that the [threshold] constituted a hazardous condition.” The same result will not apply in every state as I and others have observed.(5)
The scope of an ADA plaintiff’s claim
Whether an ADA plaintiff has standing to sue for violations they did not encounter is a question that has different answers in different circuits. In the 11th Circuit the answer is “no” as shown in Disabled Patriots of America, Inc. v. Tropical Paradise Resorts, LLC, 2021 WL 3371898 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 2, 2021). The answer is different in the Ninth Circuit and others.
And now for the quickest of quick hits concerning the usual topics.
Hotel website cases holding that compliance with DOJ regulations is sufficient to satisfy the ADA:
Love v. Chsp Trs San Francisco LLC 2021 WL 3141198, at *1 (N.D. Cal. July 26, 2021)
Marquez v. Diamondrock Hb Owner, LLC, 2021 WL 3208033, at *3 (C.D. Cal. July 29, 2021)
Love v. FYI MC, LLC, 21-CV-02845-EMC, 2021 WL 2913654, at *1 (N.D. Cal. July 12, 2021)
Love v. Concord Hotel LLC, 21-CV-00933-VC, 2021 WL 2966164, at *2 (N.D. Cal. July 15, 2021)
Hotel website cases dismissed for lack of standing.
The cost of default
$2450 in attorneys fees plus costs and statutory damages in Avalos v. Sandhu, 2021 WL 3140489, at *13 (E.D. Cal. July 26, 2021).
$3,629.65 in attorneys fees and costs plus statutory damages, in Trujillo v. Alhumidi, 2021 WL 3077471, at *1 (E.D. Cal. July 21, 2021)
$1,425.00 in attorneys’ fees and $530 in costs. No statutory damages because the court declined supplemental jurisdiction over Unruh Act claims. Villegas v. Wong-One, LLC, CV 20-7291-RSWL-ASX, 2021 WL 2987151, at *7 (C.D. Cal. July 15, 2021)
$2,073.75, representing $1,855 in attorney’s fees and $218.75 in costs plus damages in Sepulveda v. Buelna, 2021 WL 3411197, at *11 (N.D. Cal. July 16, 2021)
$1,275 in attorneys’ fees, and $835 in costs plus damages in Whitaker v. Lucky OPCO LLC, 2021 WL 3427115, at *4 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 5, 2021)
$3,640.00 in attorneys’ fees and costs plus $12,000 in statutory damages in Johnson v. 12N Park Victoria, 2021 WL 3291890 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 2, 2021). The statutory damages are a reminder that default can be risky when the damages may exceed the usual $4000 in statutory damages under the Unruh Act.
$3,675.00 in attorneys’ fees and costs plus statutory damages in Love v. Icustom Clothing LLC, 2021 WL 3291885, (N.D. Cal. Aug. 2, 2021)
The indefatigable Peter Strojnik loses again.
Strojnik v. Patel, 2021 WL 3190866, at *3 (D. Ariz. July 28, 2021)
Retaining supplemental jurisdiction over Unruh Act claims
Johnson v. Garden Court Inn, LLC, 2021 WL 3209721, at *5 (N.D. Cal. July 29, 2021)
Whitaker v. Surf & Turf, LLC., 2021 WL 3427122, at *5 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 5, 2021).
Declining supplemental jurisdiction over Unruh Act claims.
* The words come from a song by Noel Coward, but the expression was striking enough to be the title of an album by Joe Cocker and a different song by Leon Russell.
¹ “Can you sit in a wheelchair while you stand at the bar?”
² See, “Because of Winn-Dixie”
³ The Western District of Pennsylvania is one of several that imposes special conference requirements on Rule 12(b)(6) motions because pleading defects can so often be cured by amendment, making the entire battle over the original pleading pointless.
(4) I’ve discussed counter-clutter before, “POS Marketing and ADA Compliance” It is notable that in O’Reilly, the court asked whether the counter was usable, not whether there was 36″ of clear space as in the Kalani v Starbucks case I discussed in 2015. When push comes to shove it is accessibility that should matter, but the reality of accessibility isn’t determined until summary judgment or trial.
(5) See “Personal injury and the ADA” and other blogs, as well as Bill Goren’s blog Negligence/negligence per se and title III of the ADA: Opportunity for personal injury attorneys to expand their practice