NHEH Publications

Website Accessibility: The New Wave of Disability Lawsuits

By Lindsey Berg-James, Attorney
Noland, Hamerly, Etienne & Hoss

In 2016, a blind customer sued Domino’s Pizza after he unsuccessfully attempted to order a pizza online using Domino’s website and mobile app.  The customer generally accesses the internet using screen-reading software which vocalizes visual information on websites.  He determined he could not order pizza on Domino’s website or mobile app because they were not designed so that the software could read them.  While, the trial court agreed that the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to Domino’s website and mobile app, it dismissed the lawsuit in part because there are no legal technical standards for public accommodation websites which Domino’s could rely on to ensure it was in compliance with the ADA.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed that the ADA applies to Domino’s website and mobile app because the ADA applies “to services of a place of public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation.” The court ruled that to limit the ADA to discrimination in providing services occurring only on the premises would contradict the plain language of the law.  However, the appellate court disagreed with the trial court that Domino’s lacked notice of what was required for website accessibility, stating that since 1996 the Department of Justice has made clear that a business’ website must provide effective communication with its disabled customers.  The Ninth Circuit did not express any opinion as to whether Domino’s website and mobile app in fact violated the ADA.  Rather, it instructed the trial court to allow the case to proceed in order to make that determination. 

While a determination of whether a particular business website and/or mobile app violates the ADA is always a fact-specific, individualized inquiry, the Ninth Circuit’s decision adds to the growing legal authority that business owners cannot just ensure their physical places of business comply with the ADA.  Websites and mobile apps must also be in compliance. 

Given this rapidly developing area of the law, businesses must be aware of the risks associated with maintaining a website that is not accessible for customers with disabilities.  As a starting place, companies should ensure their websites use text in a format compatible with screen reading software to aid blind and visually-impaired customers.  Businesses may also wish to hire a website accessibility consultant to perform an assessment of the website and to assist in making any necessary changes. 

This article is intended to address topics of general interest and should not be construed as legal advice.

© 2019 Noland, Hamerly, Etienne & Hoss