By Kristina M. Launey & Minh N. Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis: Ninth Circuit overturns district court’s dismissal of website accessibility lawsuit on due process and primary jurisdiction grounds, remands case to proceed with discovery.

On January 15, 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the fifth federal appeals court ruling on the issue of website accessibility, and there is no doubt that it is a victory for plaintiffs and their lawyers.  However, there are some pro-defense nuances that are worth pointing out.

By way of background, the district court had concluded that the ADA does apply to Domino’s website and mobile app, but dismissed the lawsuit before discovery because:  (1) Holding Domino’s in violation of the ADA when there are no legal technical standards for public accommodations websites would be violation of due process; and (2) under the primary jurisdiction doctrine, courts should hold off on deciding cases where enforcement agencies with special expertise should weigh in first.

The Ninth Circuit  agreed with the district court that the ADA applies to Domino’s website and app.  In so doing, the court said that the ADA “applies to the services of a place of public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation.”  The Ninth Circuit did not agree with the district court on the due process point, however, finding that Domino’s has been on notice since 1996 of DOJ’s position that its website and app must provide effective communication.  (We note, however, that none of the DOJ documents cited by the court actually mention mobile apps.)  The Ninth Circuit also said the district court erred in applying the primary jurisdiction doctrine, noting that since the DOJ is not going to issue any regulations about websites and mobile apps, applying the doctrine would just “needlessly delay” the resolution of the claim, and the application of the ADA to the facts of the case “are well within the court’s competence.”  The Ninth Circuit’s rejection of these due process and primary jurisdiction arguments, which are often mounted by defendants in website accessibility cases, is not entirely surprising as many district courts have also reached the same conclusion, and the district court’s decision in this case was an outlier.

The Ninth Circuit concluded by making clear that it was not expressing any opinion about whether Domino’s website or mobile app comply with the ADA.  The court instructed the district court to proceed with discovery and then decide whether Domino’s website and app comply with the ADA’s effective communication and full and equal enjoyment mandates.

From the defense perspective, there are several useful points in the decision.

First, the Ninth Circuit reaffirmed its position that, to be covered by the ADA, a website or mobile app must have a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation. The court stated that this nexus was “critical” to its analysis in the Domino’s case where the “alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises – which are places of public accommodation.”  The Ninth Circuit said in a footnote that it was not deciding whether “the ADA covers the websites or apps of a physical place of public accommodation where the inaccessibility does not impede access to the goods and services of a physical location.”

Second, the Ninth Circuit left open the possibility that a 24/7 toll-free phone line could be a way to provide access in lieu of an accessible app or website.  The court did not have to consider the question of whether a telephone hotline could be an adequate alternative to an accessible website or mobile app because the district court’s holding was not based on the phone line.  However, the Ninth Circuit said in a footnote that “the mere presence of a phone number, without discovery on its effectiveness, is insufficient to grant summary judgment in favor of Domino’s.”  This statement suggests that, with discovery on the effectiveness of the phone line, summary judgment for Domino’s could be a possibility.

Third, in response to Domino’s complaint that the DOJ has failed to provide clear direction as to what public accommodations must do to comply with the ADA with respect to their websites, the Ninth Circuit reiterated that “the ADA and its implementing regulations are intended to give public accommodations maximum flexibility in meeting the statute’s requirements.”

Fourth, the Ninth Circuit said that “due process constrains the remedies that may be imposed.”  Thus, defendants may be able to make the due process argument later in a case if a violation of the ADA is found and the court must fashion injunctive relief.

In sum, while this decision adds to the growing body of website accessibility case law that favors plaintiffs, there are some useful nuggets.  That said, we predict the number of website accessibility lawsuits in California federal courts will increase dramatically in 2019.  While this case was on appeal, plaintiffs largely opted to file their website accessibility cases in California state court but this decision clears the way for more federal filings.

 

By Minh N. Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Is it a service animal or an emotional support animal?  Do I have to allow both?  How to tell one from the other, and the rules that apply.

We get a lot of questions about service and emotional support animals.  It’s obvious that there is a lot of confusion out there.  Here is how to tell one from the other, and the rules that apply to both.

Public Accommodations.  Under Title III of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and virtually all state laws, a service animal is an animal that has been trained to perform work or tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.  Emotional support animals—also called therapy or comfort animals—have not been trained to perform work or tasks.  Instead, they provide a benefit just by being present.  Public accommodations (e.g. restaurants, theatres, stores, health care facilities), are allowed to ask only two questions to determine if an animal is a service animal:  (1) Do you need the animal because of a disability? and (2) What work or tasks has this animal been trained to perform?  The second question is the key:  If the person is unable to identify the work or tasks that the animal has been trained to perform, then the animal is not a service animal.

Under the ADA, only a dog or miniature horse (no, we are not joking) can serve as service animals.  The ADA requires public accommodations to allow service animals to accompany their owners anywhere the owners can go, although the Department of Justice made clear a few years ago that they can be prohibited from swimming pools (in the water) as well as shopping carts.  The ADA provides no protection for emotional support animals in public accommodations.  The Department of Justice has a very helpful FAQ about service animals, and the Washington Post recently published a story that is also useful.

When developing policies, public accommodations must comply with both federal and state law, and some states provide greater protections.  For example, in some states, any type of animal (not limited to dogs and miniature horses) can be a service animal provided it has been trained to perform work or tasks.  Some states may provide protection for emotional support animals as well.  Virtually all states protect service animals in training, which are not addressed by the ADA.  Thus, public accommodations must tailor their policies to account for state requirements, or adopt a policy that will comport with the broadest of all state laws nationwide.

Housing.  The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) applies to residential facilities and provides protection for emotional support animals in addition to service animals.  Thus, property managers, condo associations, co-op boards, and homeowners associations need to keep this in mind when dealing with requests from homeowners and tenants relating to these types of animals.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent guidance on this topic is here.

Airplanes.  The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), not the ADA, governs accommodations for people with disabilities on airplanes.  The Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for enforcing the ACAA rules.  Historically, the rules have required accommodations for emotional support animals, but recent abuses of the rules by passengers seeking to bring all manner of animals such as peacocks and pigs onto planes has caused the DOT to revisit this issue in a pending rulemaking.

Compliance Strategy.  All businesses should have a written policy concerning service and emotional support animals that takes into account federal law, state law, the nature of the business, and the ability of employees to make decisions about whether an animal should be allowed onto the premises.  Having a written policy and training employees on the policy is key to ensuring that they know how to respond when one of these animals shows up on the premises.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the ADA Title III Team.

By Minh Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis:  An executive order from President Trump will likely halt the Justice Department’s public accommodations website rulemaking.

President Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ) had stated that proposed regulations for public accommodations websites would be issued in 2018—eight years after the agency began its rulemaking process.  The likelihood of such a proposed regulation being issued now is virtually non-existent.

Among the flurry of executive orders President Trump signed this week was one entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs”.  This EO virtually obliterates any chance that the DOJ will issue any website regulations for public accommodations websites during Trump’s Administration.

The EO directs all federal agencies to:

  • Identify at least two existing regulations to be repealed for each new regulation;
  • Ensure that the total incremental cost of all new regulations, including repealed regulations, to be finalized in 2017 be “no greater than zero;”
  • Offset any new incremental costs associated with new regulations by eliminating existing costs associated with at least two prior regulations.

The EO exempts regulations relating to: (1) military, national security, or foreign affairs functions of the United States; and (2) agency organization, management, or personnel.  It also vests the Director of the Office of Management and Budget with the authority to grant additional exemptions.  The stated purpose of this EO is to “manage the costs associated with the governmental imposition of private expenditures required to comply with Federal regulations”.  We therefore assume that the EO would not apply to regulations applicable to state and local governments that the DOJ has been working on and could issue under Title II of the ADA.  It is unclear what, if any, impact this EO may have on the Title II regulatory effort.

While our prediction may seem dire, we cannot fathom what two regulations the DOJ would repeal to make way for new public accommodations website regulations and offset their associated cost.  Though some may think that businesses are better off with no regulations on this subject, we disagree.  The current tsunami of lawsuits and demand letters about allegedly inaccessible websites is the result of uncertainly and absence of regulations that impose reasonable rules that provide adequate time for businesses to comply.  This is one issue upon which virtually all who practice in this space – on the legal, technological, or advocacy side – agree.

Edited by Kristina Launey.