In Martinez v. Cot'n Wash, Inc., No. B314476 (Cal. Ct. App. Aug. 1, 2022), the plaintiff alleged that the defendant, Cot'n Wash, Inc. (“CW”), failed and refused to remove access barriers on its website that prevented free and full use by the blind plaintiff and other blind persons using screen reading software. The plaintiff sued. The trial court dismissed the complaint and the plaintiff appealed.
The California Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint. The Court ruled that CW’s website is not a “place of public accommodation” to which Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) applies. Therefore, the plaintiff’s complaint did not allege facts that established a violation of the ADA.
The Court noted that Title III prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals by private entities and provides that:
No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.
To establish a Title III violation, a plaintiff must show:
A website unconnected to a physical presence is not a “place of public accommodation”
The Court considered whether the website in question qualified as a “place of public accommodation” and held that it did not. The Court noted that the ADA defines the phrase “public accommodation” by enumerating 12 categories of covered 'places' and 'establishments,' giving nonexclusive examples of types of enterprises falling into each category. Websites are not identified in any of the statutory categories. However, the Court noted that this is not surprising as there were no commercial websites when the ADA was enacted in 1990. The Court acknowledged that in the 30 years since, websites have become central to American life and the issue of whether websites are subject to ADA requirements has been the subject of a growing number of lawsuits, judicial attention, and academic commentary..
Despite acknowledging that there were no commercial websites when the ADA was enacted, the Court considered Congress's decision to use the phrase "place." The Court noted that the plain meaning of “place” involves physical space and could easily be understood as an intentional exclusion of businesses without any physical presence from the scope of Title III, even if they might constitute "sales and retail establishments." The Court also noted that SCOTUS recently held that "place" connotes a physical space, at least in the context of a New Jersey law protecting against discrimination in "places of public accommodation.”
The plaintiff argued that it would be absurd for Title III to treat a sales transaction differently depending on the venue through which it occurs. As explained by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, it would be irrational to conclude that persons who enter an office to purchase services are protected by the ADA, but persons who purchase the same services over the telephone or by mail are not.
However, the Court did not agree. It stated:
Given the lack of support for interpreting "place" or "place of public accommodation" as including digital websites under the plain meaning of these terms and the canons of statutory construction, we are loathe to rely entirely on the broad goals of the statute as a sufficient basis for doing so. [...]
The Court held that adopting the plaintiff's proposed interpretation of "place of public accommodation" would mean embracing a view that Congress (through its inaction since the enactment of the ADA) and the DOJ (through its unwillingness to draft regulations) have both tacitly rejected.
Based on all of the factors discussed above, the Court concluded that CW's website was not a "place of public accommodation" under Title III and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint.