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Is Your Company’s Website ADA Compliant? And Does It Need to Be?
If you own a brick-and-mortar business that serves the public and has an associated website or app, read this blog, as it pertains to you directly.
Most people are familiar with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark piece of legislation signed into law in 1990 that requires businesses serving the public to make their locations accessible to people with disabilities. This means things like installing ramps, providing accessible parking spaces, and making walkways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs.
In this digital age, companies are learning that the ADA may apply to many websites and mobile applications, too, and what that means for them.
Domino’s Website and App Not Accessible
Normally on this blog we look at court cases from the South Carolina Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, but today’s case is actually from the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit (which encompasses several western states, Alaska, and Hawaii), Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC, which you can find here.
Guillermo Robles is a blind man who relies on screen-reading software to vocalize visual information of websites so he can use them. On at least two occasions, he was unable to order a pizza online from Domino’s Pizza because, he said, the company’s website and app were designed in a way that weren’t accessible to him.
In 2016, Robles filed a suit against Domino’s seeking damages and injunctive relief, arguing that Domino’s website and mobile app violated the ADA as well as the California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (UCRA), which outlaws discrimination based on disability and other factors. Domino’s argued that the ADA didn’t apply to their website and also argued that enforcing ADA compliance standards would violate their 14th Amendment right to due process. The case went to a district court and was later appealed.
Two questions (among others) the US Court of Appeals had to answer were:
- Are Domino’s Pizza’s website and mobile app subject to the ADA?
- Does the Department of Justice have to articulate specific standards for businesses to follow before these businesses make their websites and mobile apps ADA-compliant?
Here’s what the court found.
Yes, Domino’s Websites and Mobile App Are Subject to the ADA
The district court held that the ADA (specifically, Title III) did apply to Domino’s Pizza’s website and mobile app, and the court of appeals agreed.
The intention of the ADA is to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities in a variety of ways. The Act expressly states that places of public accommodation where goods and services are available to the public – like Domino’s Pizza – must take steps to ensure that people with disabilities are not excluded or denied services. These businesses must provide “auxiliary aids and services” to ensure access.
But does a website need to meet the same standards of accessibility as a place of public accommodation? The court of appeals states in its decision that a website associated with a physical location does need to be accessible. The inaccessibility of Domino’s Pizza’s website and app in this case prevented a disabled user, Robles, from accessing the goods and services of the physical location, thus violating the ADA. In making this determination, the court joins several other courts that have come to the same conclusion in similar cases.
No, the DOJ Does Not First Have to Articulate Specific Standards
The Department of Justice (DOJ) is tasked with regulating implementation of the ADA, and it promised to provide guidelines for website accessibility back in 2010. But that hasn’t happened.
One of Domino’s arguments was that it wasn’t responsible for making its website or mobile app accessible because the guidelines promised by the DOJ hadn’t materialized, so it didn’t know exactly which standards to adopt.
However, there does exist a widely known set of standards that Domino’s could have reasonably adopted and could still adopt as a possible equitable remedy. Those are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, a set of private industry standards for website accessibility. In a footnote, the court mentions that even though these guidelines are private industry standards, they have been widely adopted by many entities, including by federal agencies on their public-facing electronic content. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to adopt WCAG 2.0, and the DOJ has required several ADA-covered entities to adopt them in consent decrees and settlement agreements in the past.
The district court said that imposing WCAG 2.0 standards on Domino’s “fl[ew] in the face of due process” and stated that the DOJ needed to provide guidelines.
The court of appeals disagreed. The Constitution doesn’t require the DOJ or Congress to articulate exactly how a business should comply with the law. “The Lack of Specific Regulations Does Not Eliminate Domino’s Statutory Duty,” says the court (emphasis added). Further, though it hasn’t come out with specific guidelines, the DOJ has “repeatedly” affirmed that websites of public accommodation are subject to Title III of the ADA. Because of this, it’s reasonable to say that Domino’s Pizza has been “on notice” since at least 1996 and has been aware that it has a duty to make its website accessible.
What This Means for You, a Business Owner
Domino’s Pizza petitioned the US Supreme Court to take up the case in June 2019. Showing support for Domino’s were a number of outside parties filing amicus curiae briefs: the Washington Legal Foundation, Retail Litigation Center, Inc., et al., the Cato Institute, the Restaurant Law Center, and the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, et. al.
But the US Supreme Court denied certiorari, meaning the decision discussed above by the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit stands for its district. This will likely have big ramifications for businesses not only in that district, but the rest of the country.
If you own a business with a physical location that is open to the public and you have a website that helps people acquire goods and services from your business, the smart move is to make sure that your website is accessible to people with disabilities. As the DOJ has made clear for many years, it is your legal responsibility to make sure your website is accessible. (It’s also good business.)
If you work with a web developer, ask them about your site’s accessibility. Or if you’re developing your own site and haven’t ever thought about accessibility, learning about WCAG 2.0 is a good place to start.
What if you own a business but it’s not open to the public, or you run a website that has no connection to a brick-and-mortar location? There’s no obligation for such websites to be ADA compliant, so it’s up to you whether you want your site to be accessible or not.
Strategic Business Advice and Guidance
The case above is just one example where the law and business intersect, but it happens all the time. By knowing more about your company’s legal duties, options, and potential pitfalls, you can help strengthen your business. For smart strategic advice to help protect and grow your business, contact business attorney Gem McDowell and his associates at the Gem McDowell Law Group in Mt. Pleasant, SC by calling 843-284-1021 today.