In a landmark opinion, the California Court of Appeals has determined that the websites of online-only businesses are not “public accommodations” covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
This contrasts with numerous statements from the Department of Justice (DOJ), which has repeatedly held that private business websites fall under Title III. While the opinion does not change federal requirements for web accessibility, it is expected to immediately limit accessibility lawsuits targeting online-only businesses under California’s Unruh Act.
The case, Martinez v. Cot’n Wash, Inc. (PDF), may prompt efforts in U.S. Congress to codify web accessibility requirements. Below, we’ll look at some important takeaways from the ruling.
An Overview Accessibility Lawsuits Under the California Unruh Act
California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibits most businesses from discriminating against individuals on the basis of personal characteristics such as sex, race, ethnicity, religion, and disability status. It allows plaintiffs to sue for monetary damages of up to $4,000 per offense.
The ADA and many other disability non-discrimination laws only allow plaintiffs to recover legal expenses. As a result, many accessibility lawsuits are filed in the state: Last year, 704 federal lawsuits filed over disability issues were filed in California.
To file a lawsuit under the Unruh Act, plaintiffs must prove discrimination in one of two ways:
- Demonstrate that the business intentionally discriminated on the basis of disability (or another covered category).
- Demonstrate that the business violates Title III of the ADA.
In other cases, courts have referenced the DOJ’s long-standing position that websites are places of public accommodation.
That position has been reinforced over the past two decades. Most recently, in March 2022, the DOJ issued a statement clarifying technical requirements and referencing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (W3C) as a reasonable standard for ADA compliance.
Related: Despite New DOJ Guidance, Many Organizations Haven't Adopted Accessible Web Design
Are Online-Only Websites “Places of Public Accommodation?”
In Martinez v. Cot’n Wash, Inc., Alejandro Martinez,who is blind, alleged that the defendant’s online-only retail store had numerous accessibility barriers that prevented access for people who use screen readers. Screen readers are software that converts text to audio or braille output.
Martinez sent ADA demand letters to the retailer, and the business allegedly did not take action to make their website accessible.
But the California Court of Appeals ruled that this was not evidence of intentional discrimination, and their 35-page opinion rejected the plaintiff’s Title III argument. The opinion indicates that this is because Cot’n Wash, Inc., only operates online — not in a physical retail space.
“As to the ADA violation theory, Martinez has not alleged, as he must in order for Title III of the ADA to apply, that CW [Cot’n Wash, Inc.]’s website constitutes a ‘place of public accommodation,’” the opinion reads. “Under current law, we cannot read this phrase as including retail websites without any connection to a physical space.”
“The statutory language does not include a category that encompasses such websites, and Congress has chosen not to amend the ADA to clarify whether and under what circumstances a website can constitute a ‘place of public accommodation' — despite Congress recognizing over 20 years ago the lack of clarity on this point and the resulting federal circuit split that persists today.”
Related: Who Can File Web Accessibility Lawsuits Under the ADA?
What Martinez v. Cot’N Wash Means for Digital Accessibility
The California Court of Appeals’ opinion highlights the need for clarity in digital accessibility laws at both the federal and state level. Interestingly, the court stopped short of saying that Title III does not apply to websites — the opinion only applies to businesses that do not have a physical retail location.
The court also expressed the opinion that “facilitating access to retail websites would serve the goals of the ADA,” but since Congress has failed to pass clear legislation addressing web accessibility, California has limited power when interpreting the law.
Here are some key takeaways to keep in mind:
- The opinion does not change businesses' responsibilities under Title III. It also doesn’t affect interpretation of the ADA outside of California.
- Businesses that operate a physical (brick-and-mortar) establishment must still provide accessible websites, as courts generally consider these online resources to be a “benefit or service" of the business.
- The plaintiff is likely to file for a petition to review by the California Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court’s review is discretionary, and the California Court of Appeals' opinion is likely binding precedent.
- While the number of web accessibility lawsuits may drop as a result, plaintiffs may simply decide to file in another state. In 2021, most lawsuits were filed in New York (1,474 lawsuits).
Ultimately, website accessibility remains crucial for compliance with the ADA and other non-discrimination laws. It’s also important for running a successful business: Adopting the best practices of WCAG improves online experiences for users of all abilities, and the business case for accessibility is incredibly strong.
To learn more about business requirements under Title III, download the Essential Guide to ADA Compliance for Websites or send us a message to connect with an accessibility expert.