California Court of Appeals Only Holds ADA-Exempt E-Commerce Website | Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner

The California Court of Appeals ruled that websites operated solely by online businesses are not “public accommodations” subject to Title III of the ADA, agreeing with the Ninth Court of Appeals circuit and aligning the state and federal courts of California with this post.

In Martinez v, Cot’n Wash, Inc., the blind plaintiff alleged that the exclusive online retailer engaged in disability-based discrimination in violation of California’s Unruh law because it could not use its website at www.drops.com with its screen reader software. . A plaintiff can prove a violation of the Unruh Act by showing (1) intentional discrimination, or (2) a violation of Title III of the ADA. Martinez alleged both.

As for her ADA claim, the Court ruled that she could not rely on the plain language of the prohibition against discrimination in a “place of public accommodation” to determine whether the ADA applies. to websites, stating: “the ordinary meaning of the law is not determinative of language, because there is no ‘ordinary meaning’ of this expression. Decades of conflicting federal case law interpreting it establish that, instead, the term is ambiguous.

The Court also noted that “Congress and the DOJ have long been aware of the confusion in the courts about whether and when a website qualifies as a ‘place of public accommodation,’ but chose not to clarify the issue through amendments to the law. or additional regulation.

The Court therefore turned to what it called “the third and final stage of the interpretative process”. “In this phase of the process, we apply reason, practicality and common sense to the language at hand. Where there is uncertainty, we must consider the consequences that will flow from a particular interpretation. Based on such an analysis, we ultimately conclude that adopting Martinez’s proposed interpretation of “public accommodation” would be tantamount to adopting the view that Congress (through its inaction since the enactment of the ‘ADA) and the DOJ (through its reluctance to write regulations) have both tacitly rejected.

On whether the court’s decision will have an “absurd result” by treating retail websites differently from brick-and-mortar retailers, the court said, “we do not consider it absurd or irrational for Congress to treat discrimination by online retailers in a different way than it deals with discrimination by physical retailers. …Since physical stores conduct their business differently from retail websites, the type and extent of burdens that anti-discrimination measures impose on a business will necessarily differ depending on whether the business operates through a physical storefront or purely digital.

With respect to the theory of intentional discrimination, the Court held that the retailer’s inaction in response to plaintiff’s demand letters complaining of barriers to website accessibility does not prove intentional discrimination: ” failure to address the known discriminatory effects of a policy” is not sufficient to establish intentional discrimination under the Unruh Act. Notably, the Court also held that a disparate impact is insufficient to establish intentional discrimination, explaining that “[a] the applicant cannot rel[y] on the effects of an apparently neutral policy on a particular group…to infer…a discriminatory intent.

The Court’s decision is significant for online-only businesses because it aligns California state courts with the Ninth Circuit principles that e-commerce-only businesses are not subject to the ADA. The decision is also certain to reduce the number of website accessibility cases filed in California, where Unruh law provides statutory damages of $4,000 per violation.

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