Eleventh Circuit Dunks on Businesses With Websites: Haynes v. Dunkin’ Donuts LLC
In its second pro-plaintiff decision in as many months, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that blind website accessibility plaintiffs need not show that difficulty using a place of public accommodation’s website also caused a lack of equal access to the physical place of the public accommodation. Haynes v. Dunkin’ Donuts LLC, No. 18-10373 (11th Cir., July 31, 2018). If the website is a privilege or amenity of the physical place, that is sufficient to support a website accessibility claim. The Eleventh Circuit’s reversal of the district court’s grant of a motion to dismiss undermines yet another argument used by businesses to defeat website accessibility claims.
Once arguably the most business-friendly jurisdiction with respect to website accessibility claims under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Eleventh Circuit has issued two decisions in as many months that jeopardize that status. These two straight losses for the business community are all the more damaging because of the massive volume of website accessibility claims brought in Eleventh Circuit lower courts, including the Middle and Southern Districts of Florida.
Notably, businesses and the Dunkin’ Donuts court have relied on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Rendon v. Valleycrest Productions, Limited, No. 01-11197 (11th Cir. 2002), yet have reached contrary conclusions as to the meaning of its holding. In analyzing Rendon, the Dunkin Donuts court held that the plaintiff’s allegation that his inability to access information about store locations and to buy gift cards online were sufficient to allege a plausible claim for relief under the ADA. Specifically, the court held that “[i]t appears that the website is a service that facilitates the use of Dunkin’ Donuts’ shops” and “the ADA is clear that whatever goods and services Dunkin’ Donuts offers as a part of its place of public accommodation, it cannot discriminate against people on the basis of a disability, even if those goods and services are intangible.” The court then concluded that the alleged barriers on the website denied the plaintiff access to the services of the physical locations that are available online and permitted the case to move forward.
The Eleventh Circuit’s holding in Dunkin’ Donuts slams the door on recent efforts by lower courts in the Southern and Middle Districts of Florida interpreting Rendon to limit the regulatory reach of the ADA to physical, concrete places of public accommodation or anything that affects access to or enjoyment of those physical spaces. Those courts have routinely dismissed website accessibility cases where the plaintiff fails to allege that some function on the website hinders the full use and enjoyment of an actual physical space, as opposed to impeding access to services of the physical location that are available online.
The Dunkin’ Donuts decision has struck a blow to owners and operators of places of public accommodation, as it has made it easier for plaintiffs to survive motions to dismiss. This decision comes on the heels of Haynes v. Hooters of America, LLC, 2018 WL 3030840 (11th Cir. 2018), wherein the Eleventh Circuit eliminated a useful defense strategy in the website accessibility arena when it held that a business’s agreement to remediate its website in a prior, private settlement did not render moot subsequent actions seeking the same relief.
The impact of these two decisions should not be taken lightly. The arguments available to businesses seeking to dispose of website accessibility claims at the outset of litigation as a matter of law are dwindling, which may result in opportunistic plaintiffs’ attorneys filing even more claims regarding website accessibility. As such, owners and operators of places of public accommodation may want to continuously monitor their websites for any barriers to access and promptly remediate any impediments.