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Retailers Should Start Preparing for Website Accessibility Class Actions: Careful, Your Website is Showing!

Retailers have been the predominant targets of a recent wave of demand letters claiming that their websites and mobile applications unlawfully discriminate against disabled customers. These demands come on the heels of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) confirmation that, in 2018, it will propose accessibility standards for private businesses, based on the accessibility standards it has already proposed for public entities. Even with two months left in the year, 2016 has already seen more single-plaintiff and class action lawsuits actually filed against retailers on this issue than ever before. In the face of an increasingly active plaintiffs’ bar, any retailer with a commercial website or mobile application—especially those operating in California, New York, or Pennsylvania, where the majority of these suits have been filed—should take notice and prepare accordingly.

Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in “places of public accommodation”—a term originally construed to mean brick and mortar establishments like stores, restaurants, movie theaters, hospitals, and schools open to the general public. As the Internet has grown increasingly important to everyday life and commerce, however, plaintiffs have insisted that websites count among covered “places of public accommodation” as well.

Courts have varied in their approach to handling this influx of litigation. In the Ninth Circuit (which includes California), websites are not considered places of public accommodation unless there is a sufficient nexus between the online goods and services and a qualifying brick and mortar location. For example, the Northern District of California has held that Target’s website is a place of public accommodation because the same goods are sold online and in its physical stores, Nat’l Fed'n of the Blind v. Target Corp., 452 F.Supp.2d 946, 954 (N.D.Cal.2006), while Facebook, which does not provide any of its services out of a physical location open to the public, is not. Young v. Facebook, Inc., 790 F.Supp.2d 1110, 1114–16 (N.D.Cal.2011). The Third, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits (which include states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, and Florida) have similarly required at least a nexus to a physical location open to the public to qualify an enterprise as a place of public accommodation. Meanwhile, the First, Second, and Seventh Circuits (which include states like New York and Illinois, among others) have concluded that non-physical enterprises, including websites, may be places of public accommodation without this limitation.

The Department of Justice’s Anticipated 2018 Regulations

The DOJ has taken the position—which courts may consider but are not yet required to adopt—that commercial websites are generally subject to Title III, regardless of a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation. Consistent with this position, the DOJ issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2010 announcing plans to issue proposed regulations to Title III setting standards of accessibility for public accommodations’ websites. Those proposed regulations are widely expected to be consistent with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 AA), which advocacy organizations have described as the minimum standards for how a website or mobile application should be coded and arranged to ensure it is accessible to the disabled, including primarily the visually and hearing impaired. Indeed, subject to potential exceptions for smaller entities or particular types of content, the DOJ indicated this summer that it plans to adopt the WCAG 2.0 AA standards wholescale in the Title II regulations that will soon govern public entities, and which the DOJ has confirmed will form the framework of its proposed regulations for Title III. The WGAG 2.0 AA standards are too numerous and complex to exhaust here, but include, for example:

  • Alternative text for images compatible with screen-reading software

  • The ability to navigate the website using a keyboard instead of only a mouse

  • Logical and consistent use of headings for ease of navigation

  • Closed captioning and sign language interpretation for audio features

  • Alternative audio description for video features

  • Not using color as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, or prompting a response

  • Text that generally has a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1

  • Limitations on flashing content which may cause seizures

Although the DOJ’s proposed Title III regulations have been delayed until 2018, this has not prevented plaintiffs from pursuing litigation in the meantime. To the contrary, plaintiffs’ attorneys appear to be leveraging the current uncertainty of this landscape to seek expedited settlements, including not only injunctive relief but also damages and attorneys’ fees.

What is the Potential Exposure for Non-Compliance?

Businesses sued for website inaccessibility face significant exposure. Plaintiffs who prevail in a Title III suit are entitled to injunctive relief and attorneys’ fees. ADA suits are often also accompanied by claims under applicable state law counterparts, such as California’s Unruh Act and Disabled Persons Act that impose significant statutory damages for every violation ($4,000 per violation or actual damages in California).

Because approximately half of the lawsuits being filed on this issue are class actions, these numbers—to say nothing of defense costs—can add up quickly. The seminal 2006 case of National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp., for example, was the first to certify a class action to enforce Title III and related state laws against an online merchant. In 2008, the court approved a class settlement for $6 million and awarded over $3.7 million in attorneys’ fees.

Recommended Action Steps

It may be tempting to wait for the DOJ’s regulations before working to perfect website compliance. Getting a website up to speed can be time-consuming, however, and may require working with an attorney and a web-design consultant. Online retailers and service providers should get a head start now.

While expensive, many businesses may find that improving their website’s accessibility early will not only mitigate exposure, but will make good business sense, as well. Indeed, experts estimate that nearly 220 million Americans will regularly shop and do other business online in the coming year. Statistically, around 20 million of those shoppers will have at least some visual or hearing impairment. With coding that makes their online storefronts more accessible, retailers may ensure that their goods and services offered online are not out of these customers’ reach.

©2019 Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. All Rights Reserved

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About this Author

Kate Gold, Labor and Employment Attorney, Drinker Biddle
Partner

Kate S. Gold defends clients in employment and other business disputes in state and federal courts, arbitrations, and before agencies. She is Co-Chair of the Labor and Employment Group's Fair Pay Act Obligations Team.

Kate’s practice includes defense of individual, collective and class actions and focuses on business and employment litigation and counseling. She handles matters involving wrongful termination, retaliation, whistle blower, sexual harassment, race, age, family leave, pregnancy and disability discrimination; defends actions for...

310-203-4029
Michael Daly, Drinker Biddle Law Firm, Philadelphia, Litigation and Retail Attorney
Partner

Michael P. Daly defends class actions and other complex litigation matters, handles appeals in state and federal courts across the country, and counsels clients on maximizing the defensibility of their marketing and enforceability of their contracts. A recognized authority on class action and consumer protection litigation, he often speaks, comments, and writes on recent decisions and developments in the class action arena. He is also a founder of the firm’s TCPA Team; the senior editor of the TCPA Blog, which provides important information and insight about the Telephone Consumer Protection Act; and a senior member of the firm's Class Actions Team and interdisciplinary Retail Industry Team.

Committed to civil rights and civic engagement, Michael has spearheaded public interest matters meant to prevent racial discrimination, protect the rights of the disabled and incarcerated, prohibit the use of unverifiable voting systems, and preclude the misuse of our laws and abuse of our civil justice system. One of his most recent public interest matters resulted in a landmark settlement that put an end to decades of discrimination by administrative agencies that had refused to make important information about public benefits programs available in alternative formats that were accessible to the blind and visually impaired. As a result of the settlement, thousands of class members have already requested and received documents in accessible alternative formats.

215-988-2604
Bradley Andreozzi, Litigation Attorney, Complex, Drinker Biddle Law Firm, Chicago
Partner

Bradley J. Andreozzi represents clients in complex high-stakes civil litigation, including class action trials and appeals. Brad has represented clients in virtually every federal appellate court, including the Supreme Court, and in many trial courts throughout the country.

Brad defends clients in class actions under various federal and state consumer protection laws, including the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA) and many state false advertising statutes. His...

(312) 569-1173
Alexis Burgess, Drinker Biddle Law Firm, Los Angeles, Intellectual Property Litigation Lawyer
Associate

Alexis Burgess represents clients in all aspects of a wide variety of complex civil and commercial litigation, including cases involving intellectual property infringement, privacy rights, defamation, data security, employment discrimination, entertainment law, environmental issues, insurance defense, and common law business disputes. Her experience encompasses class action and appellate matters in both state and federal court.

Prior to joining Drinker, Alexis investigated employment discrimination claims at the San Francisco...

310-203-4081