September 26, 2022

Volume XII, Number 269

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September 26, 2022

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California Court of Appeal Holds Online-Only Business Websites Are Not “Public Accommodations"

On August 1, 2022, the California Court of Appeal joined longstanding Ninth Circuit precedent in determining that online-only businesses are not “public accommodations” covered under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) in  Martinez v. Cot’n Wash, Inc., 2022 WL 3025828 (Cal. Ct. App. 2022).  This may signal a change of tides of sorts for employers and other companies who have found themselves prey to this particular brand of ADA litigation.

Title III of the ADA prohibits “public accommodations” from discriminating on the basis of disability and requires that businesses make their facilities accessible.  Historically, this meant designing or altering physical facilities to be accessible (e.g., by adding ramps, enlarging door frames, etc.).  However, in recent years, companies also have faced a slew of ADA access lawsuits based on allegations that websites are not accessible to individuals with visual impairments.  In California, home to more ADA accessibility suits than any other state, many of these claims are filed under both the ADA and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (the “Unruh Act”).

Martinez involved an ADA and Unruh Act public accommodation claim by a blind plaintiff, who claimed that he was unable to use screen reading software to navigate a website for an online-only cleaning-supply company, Dropps.com.

Looking to the statutory text of the ADA and its implementing regulations, the court noted the definition of “public accommodation” always includes terms like “places,” “establishments,” or “facilit[ies],” words whose dictionary definitions involve a physical location.  The court also considered the history of the ADA and noted that both Congress and the Department of Justice (the agency charged with Title III enforcement) have been divided—or plainly inactive—for well over a decade despite “known confusion” on the issue.  Accordingly, the court declined to “adopt an interpretation of the statute that is not dictated by its language,” and held that Dropps.com was not a “place of public accommodation” under the ADA because it had no physical presence.

While Martinez’s holding was limited to online-only businesses, it has potentially broad implications for companies that do not operate physical facilities that are open to the public.  These businesses can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for now.

© 2022 Proskauer Rose LLP. National Law Review, Volume XII, Number 222
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About this Author

Phillipe Lebel labor & Employment Attorney Los Angeles Proskauer Law Firm
Associate

Philippe (Phil) A. Lebel represents employers in all aspects of employment litigation, including wage and hour, wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, whistleblower, trade secrets, and breach of contract litigation, in both the single-plaintiff and class-action context, at both the trial and appellate level, and before administrative agencies. Phil also represents employers in connection with labor law matters, such as labor arbitrations and proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board. Additionally, Phil counsels clients to ensure compliance with federal...

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Associate

Dylan Tedford is an associate in our Labor and Employment Department. Dylan graduated from the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, where he was a member of the Hale Moot Court Honors Program and served in several student organizations. While at USC, he was a legal extern for Judge Gregg Zive in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Nevada. Prior to law school, Dylan was a government affairs coordinator for a lobbying firm in Nevada.

310-557-4566
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