The Second Appellate District of the California Court of Appeals recently upheld a trial court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a visually impaired plaintiff alleging that a product company’s retail website cleaner was incompatible with screen reading software. The plaintiff claimed that the retail website constituted “public accommodation”, even without any connection to a physical space (the cleaning products company did not maintain a physical store), based on the policy objectives of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to support its claim under California’s Unruh law. The Los Angeles Superior Court granted the defendant’s reservation, finding that the alleged inaccessibility of the website did not violate the ADA, and the plaintiff did not allege sufficient facts to establish discriminatory intent under the law. Unruh.
In Martinez vs. Cot’n Wash, Inc., No. B314476 (Cal. Ct. App. Aug. 1, 2022), a visually impaired person relied on screen-reading software to read website content, but the product company’s website cleaning would have had access barriers that interfered with the use of the reader screen. Although the plaintiff argued that the ordinary meaning of the ADA’s definition of “public accommodation” or “facility” encompasses retail websites, the court found that the wording of statute no. was not decisive, as decades of federal case law have found the terms ambiguous. Further, Plaintiff’s assertion that a retail website qualified as “other personal property” and therefore constituted a “facility” under the ADA was also unconvincing when associating the expression of the law to a list of exclusively physical spaces or physical goods.
The Court of Appeal further noted that given the different economic and commercial concerns of physical and digital retail spaces, as well as the different burdens imposed on retailers when implementing anti-discrimination measures for a physical or digital space, “it would not be an absurd result to interpret Title III as treating transactions differently depending on whether they are purely digital or have a physical component. Although the court agreed with the plaintiff that the reduction of barriers to access to digital trade “would be consistent with the general and overarching objective of [the ADA]the wording of the statute did not support an interpretation that the ADA applied to electronic commerce. In place, “[b]Depending on the language that Congress (and the DOJ in implementing regulations) has chosen, even considered in the context of Title III policy objectives and the need to interpret the law extensively, it is not clear that Congress intended this outcome when drafting Title III.
Finally, the Court of Appeals also reviewed the legislative history of the ADA from the beginning of the circuit split involving the application of the ADA to websites, noting “we find it ultimately decisive that the enactment [the plaintiff]the interpretation proposed by ‘place of public accommodation’ [as encompassing purely digital retail websites] would be to adopt a view that Congress (through its inaction since the enactment of the ADA) and the DOJ (through its reluctance to write regulations) have both tacitly rejected. The court then confirmed that “the failure of Congress to provide clarification in the face of known confusion – and, to a lesser extent, the similar failure of the DOJ – is not a reason for us to step in and provide these clarifications. On the contrary, it is a reason for us not do this.”
This notice is a step in the right direction by encouraging the Department of Justice and/or Congress to provide rules on whether the ADA applies to websites and, if so, (1) to what types of websites it applies (for example, websites linked to physical locations, as opposed to digital-only websites); (2) what a business must do to comply with the ADA; and (3) what safe harbor mechanisms can be put in place to protect businesses from the onslaught of litigation that the state and country have experienced for several years in this area, while helping to encourage accessibility measures .