Supreme Court Rules on Website Accessibility & the ADA

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(Last Updated On: October 23, 2019)

Recently, the Supreme Court acted on a case involving Domino’s Pizza and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In particular, the court case, which Domino’s petitioned before the court aiming for clarification of the ADA. Ultimately, the court declined to hear the case, which leaves in place the previous ruling. As a result of the court’s decision to retain the existing legal decision, companies must revisit the ADA and its impact on website accessibility for the disabled.

First, what is the ADA and how does it impact website accessibility?

Enacted in the 1990s, the ADA protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination. The law applies to employment, building codes, transportation, telecommunication, state and local government, and public and private spaces.

Additionally, in terms of website accessibility Title III of the ADA addresses all “places of public accommodation” that must remove any access barriers that would prevent a person with a disability from accessing the goods or services of any business open to the public. For reference in the early ‘90s, “access barriers” were thought to be literal barriers, like an entrance accessible only by stairs. However, as the internet blossomed and e-commerce boomed, it became apparent that websites that sell goods or services fall under “places of public accommodation” and therefore need to be accessible and independently usable by all.

Essentially, the ADA sets forth regulations that ensure disabled people maintain the ability to read and understand your website.

Recent Regulatory Updates to the ADA

In 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that indicated it would amend the language of Title III to clarify its application to websites. As technology continues to change, many companies (especially e-commerce sites) looked for clarification on implementing the ADA.

However, at the end of 2017, the DOJ withdrew the notice stating it would continue to assess which technical standards are “necessary and appropriate.” In 2018, Congress passed the ADA Education and Reform Act that amended the ADA. Proponents of the bill said it would cut down on frivolous lawsuits levied against companies. Critics argued it would give businesses little incentive to practice ADA compliance. For example, many cases relate to the lack of alt-text throughout an entire site, which makes screen readers ineffective for visually impaired individuals.

Domino’s Pizza and ADA Compliance

Officially known as Domino’s Pizza v. Guillermo Robles, No. 18-1539, this case tests the impact of the ADA on a modern economy. First, some history behind the suit and how it reached the Supreme Court.

  • In 2016, Guillermo Robles, who is blind, filed a lawsuit against Domino’s.
  • The suit alleges that Robles couldn’t see the company’s website or delivery app even with screen reader software and was thus unable to order a pizza.
  • A California federal judge originally dismissed the suit based on the yet-to-be released guidance from the Justice Department on how websites should comply with Title III.
  • In 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Domino’s and other retailers must make its online services accessible.
  • In 2019, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the suit back down to a lower court and Domino’s Pizza petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case.
  • In October 2019, the Supreme Court denied Domino’s petition, which leaves in place the lower court ruling that Domino’s must update their website to comply with the ADA.

As with other ADA related suits, the crux of the lawsuit relates to what “public spaces” means under Title III. For more, Slate offers the viewpoints of each side.

“Title III of the ADA states that buildings open to the public, such as restaurants, must be accessible to people with disabilities. Domino’s lawyers argued that the ADA, which was passed in 1990, wasn’t written with online spaces in mind, so it was unclear how the act applied to its platforms. The plaintiff contended that making websites and apps inaccessible to people with disabilities would shut them out of the digital economy, which has become integral to peoples’ lives.”

So, what does the decision mean for Domino’s Pizza and other retail establishments?

Generally, nothing much changes at this time. Due to lack of clarity and guidance from the DOJ, businesses must continue to operate in limbo. For example, Domino’s (and other companies) sought the Supreme Court to hear the case in order to provide clarity on how Title III of the ADA must be implemented. Retailers understand increasing website accessibility helps improve sales, but rally around Domino’s in order to seek some clarity. Pratik A. Shah, a lawyer that represents the National Retail Federation, notes the desired clarification.

“Only this court’s intervention can establish a true nationwide standard establishing the proper scope” of website accessibility. It is time for this court to bring order to a chaotic legal landscape marked by unpredictable and unworkable accessibility standards that run counter to the goals of the ADA, consumers, and the retailers who serve them.”

However, as the courts have ruled, the ADA remains in place as is and companies should understand their responsibility to comply with the existing law.

“At least since 1996, Domino’s has been on notice that its online offerings must effectively communicate with its disabled customers and facilitate ‘full and equal enjoyment’ of Domino’s goods and services. While we understand why Domino’s wants DOJ to issue specific guidelines for website and app accessibility, the Constitution only requires that Domino’s receive fair notice of its legal duties, not a blueprint for compliance with its statutory obligations…[and] courts are perfectly capable of interpreting the meaning of ‘equal’ and ‘effective.’ ”

So, what is next?

Domino’s Pizza seems to be willing to take the case to trail in the lower courts as they continue to seek clarification on website accessibility under the ADA. For other retailers, until further guidance is provided, take steps to ensure alt-text remains on your site and screen reading software works. Additionally, stay tuned to this case, which hopefully provides the clarification that both sides seek.