California Court of Appeal Rules That The Americans With Disabilities Act Does Not Apply To A Website That Does Not Provide Goods Or Services Connected With A Physical Location

Since its passage in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has required “places of public accommodation” to make modifications to promote accessibility for disabled persons.  But what about websites?  We previously discussed the practical and legal complications of the ADA and California’s corresponding Unruh Civil Rights Act with an earlier post here.  Although they can be accessed by the public, a website is not a physical location, even though it may sell physical goods and services.  This question has split Federal Courts of Appeal for years.  Some have held that websites only exist in cyberspace and therefore are not “places” governed by the ADA.  Others have held that a website does qualify as a “place,” so long as it is advertising goods and services provided at a specific physical facility.  The California Court of Appeal had not addressed this issue or its implications for the Unruh Act.

However, that changed earlier this month with the California Court of Appeal decision of Martinez v. Cot'n Wash, Inc. (Cal. Ct. App., Aug. 1, 2022, No. B314476) 2022 WL 3025828.  In that case, the plaintiff alleged the defendant’s website was not sufficiently compatible with screen reading software for blind users.  Plaintiff alleged that this constituted a violation of both the ADA and the Unruh Act by impermissibly discriminating against disabled persons.  Plaintiff did not allege that the defendant sold goods and services at a particular physical location.  The defendant responded that its website was not subject to the ADA and that its website was not designed with any intent to discriminate against disabled persons.  

In a lengthy opinion reviewing the legislative history and other federal court interpretations of the ADA, the Court of Appeal ultimately concluded that a website that does not provide goods or services from a particular facility is not a “place of public accommodation” within the meaning of the ADA.  Accordingly, the defendant’s website was not required to accommodate disabled users under the ADA. 

Since the ADA does not apply, the Court of Appeal held that a plaintiff asserting a claim for disability discrimination under the Unruh Act is required to show “intentional” discrimination.  The Court of Appeal then held that maintaining a facially neutral website is insufficient to demonstrate any intent to discriminate.  Thus, the Court of Appeal affirmed the defendant’s demurrer to Plaintiff’s causes of action which resulted in the dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint. 

While this decision helps to clarify the applicability of the ADA to company websites, it remains to be seen how federal courts will resolve the split amongst the various Courts of Appeal.  Navigating the impact of the ADA and Unruh Act on a website can be a challenging process for any business.  For questions regarding website compliance with ADA requirements and best practices, please contact the authors of this article. 

This AALRR post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. The Firm is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process. 

©2022 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo


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