Issues to Watch

The ADA and the Internet: Accessibility for All


Meredith Ashley*

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “prohibits places of public accommodation from excluding disabled persons thus depriving them of the goods and services offered.”  Margaret C. Jasper, Legal Almanac Series: The Americans with Disabilities Act § 4:1, Westlaw (database updated Oct. 2012).  In essence, all public businesses that function for public use are “places of public accommodation,” and accordingly, are mandated to follow ADA regulations.  Id.  The ADA requires businesses to create ways in which individuals with disabilities may utilize their services, which includes establishing auxiliary aids such as readers, assistive listening devices, and braille.  Id.  However, the ADA does not require a business to “provide an auxiliary aid that would result in an undue burden or in a fundamental alteration in the nature of the goods or services provided.”  Id. § 4:4.

On October 7, 2019, the United States Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari filed by Domino’s Pizza, LLC (Domino’s) concerning Title III of the ADA.  See Amanda Robert, SCOTUS Rejects Pizza Delivery Company’s Appeal Over Web and Mobile App Accessibility, ABA. J. (Oct. 7, 2019, 12:54 PM), http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme-court-rejects-dominos-appeal-over-web-and-app-accessibility.  The denial of certiorari left the Ninth Circuit’s decision in place, which held that a blind man, Guillermo Robles, could sue the pizza franchise for not having modern screen-reading software installed on its mobile application.  See Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, 913 F.3d 898, 905–06 (9th Cir. 2019).

The main question presented was whether Title III of the ADA requires mobile phone applications that offer goods and services to comply with the federal accessibility requirements of the ADA.  Id. at 904.  Lawsuits alleging violations of ADA regulations have become considerably more popular in the past few years.  See Tucker Higgins, Supreme Court Hands Victory to Blind Man Who Sued Domino’s Over Site Accessibility, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/07/dominos-supreme-court.html (last updated Oct. 8, 2019, 6:31 PM).  The Domino’s case, however, was the first to inquire how and if the ADA applies to online shopping and ordering.  Robert, supra.

I.  Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC

Robles appealed the district court’s dismissal of his complaint that alleged Domino’s refused to make all of its services accessible to him as a blind man and thus, violated ADA regulations.  Robles, 913 F.3d at 902.  Robles tried to order a pizza online from Domino’s twice but failed to do so because the company’s website and application (app) lacked the appropriate reader software.  Id.  This software “allow[s] blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer or braille display.  A screen reader is the interface between the computer’s operating system, its applications, and the user.”  Screen Readers, AFB, https://www.afb.org/blindness-and-low-vision/using-technology/assistive-technology-products/screen-readers (last visited January 9, 2020).  Domino’s argued that the ADA regulations do not cover online ordering, and even if they do, the Department of Justice (DOJ) does not provide clear instructions on how to abide by the ADA regulations.  Id. at 903.  Domino’s moved to dismiss on the basis of this argument.  Id.  The district court granted Domino’s motion to dismiss and held that DOJ “regulations and technical assistance are necessary for the [c]ourt to determine what obligations a regulated individual or institution must abide by in order to comply with Title III.”  Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, No. CV 16-06599 SJO, 2017 WL 1330216, at *8.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit began its analysis by reviewing the goals of the ADA and the DOJ’s instructions of how to comply with the ADA.  Robles, 913 F.3d at 904.  The court recognized that the ADA regulations’ purpose is to establish a clear and inclusive directive to eliminate discrimination against those with disabilities.  Id.  The court further discerned that the DOJ expressly states that a public accommodation must “furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities.”  28 C.F.R. § 36.303(c)(1) (2018).  Although customers typically do not use online accommodations inside the franchise’s physical restaurants, the ADA does not require the services be used in the restaurant, but that the services of a place of public accommodation provide auxiliary aides to customers who need them.  Robles, 913 F.3d at 905.  The court stated: “To limit the ADA to discrimination in the provision of services occurring on the premises of a public accommodation would contradict the plain language of the statute.”  Id. (quoting Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind v. Target Corp., 452 F. Supp. 2d 946, 953 (N.D. Cal. 2006)).  The court held that the ADA applies to Domino’s app and online website because both clearly connect patrons to the goods and services offered by Domino’s physical restaurants.  Id. at 905.  The use of its app and online website have become principal ways of ordering Domino’s pizza, and the app is the only means to obtain reward points towards future purchases.  See id.  Thus, the court reversed and remanded the case for further analysis.  Id. at 911.

II.  Domino’s Petition for Certiorari

Dissatisfied with the Ninth Circuit’s decision, Domino’s proceeded with a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court.  Robert, supra.  The company argued that only the franchise’s physical restaurants are restricted by ADA regulations, and that it does not require the addition of auxiliary aides to its app and websites if it offered individuals with disabilities other ways to access its goods and services without being on the premises—such as the ability to call a Domino’s location to place an order over the phone.  Id.  Domino’s further argued that the ADA does not apply to online ordering services because they did not exist, nor were they projected to exist, when the ADA was drafted in the 1990s.  Higgins, supra.  Despite Domino’s argument, the Court denied certiorari and left the Ninth Circuit’s decision in place that ADA regulations apply to online services provided by places of public accommodation that are created to connect customers to the goods and services of its businesses.  Id.

III.  Implications Moving Forward

The Robles’s case will not be the last to examine how the ADA, as currently written, applies in a world of instant gratification and online shopping.  See Greg Stohr, Supreme Court Rejects Domino’s on Blind Man’s Website Lawsuit, Bloomberg (Oct. 7, 2019, 9:37 AM), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-07/domino-s-rejected-by-supreme-court-on-blind-man-s-website-suit.  Corporate leaders predict that the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari will create an “explosion of lawsuits” asserting that commercial online ordering services do not comply with ADA regulations.  Id.  Consequently, courts throughout the United States will be forced to decide how the ADA applies to online apps and commercial websites even though the regulation does not explicitly address those online services.  Id.

The decision to deny certiorari appears to be a loss for Domino’s and other places of public accommodation, but it is a win for advocates and those with disabilities who argue that if businesses do not create accessible online ordering services, individuals with disabilities will be excluded from the ability to participate in significant parts of the economy.  Higgins, supra.  As Robles’s attorney explained: “The blind and visually impaired must have access to websites and apps to fully and equally participate in modern society. . . .  This outcome furthers that critical objective for them and is a credit to our society.”  Id.

*Meredith is a second-year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she serves as a staff editor for the Law Review. She is a scholar of the Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Honor Society and a board member of the Criminal Law Association. This summer she will join Tydings & Rosenberg LLP as a summer associate.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s