New York Court Chides Other Approaches to Web Accessibility

art supplies

A federal district court has added fuel to an ongoing debate among courts over the extent to which the Americans With Disabilities Act covers business websites.

The court ruled that the ADA applies to a claim that art supply chain Blick Art Materials LLC failed to make its website accessible to blind people. The court criticized the approaches of other courts in the process, particularly a narrow approach that requires a link between a website’s alleged inaccessibility and enjoyment of the physical store. 

“A rigid adherence to a physical nexus requirement leaves potholes of discrimination in what would otherwise be a smooth road to integration,” the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York said.

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the services offered by places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, museums, and retail stores. Federal circuits have split on whether websites qualify as “places of public accommodations” under the law.

The court targeted a 2006 decision over the alleged inaccessibility of Target Corp.’s website. In that case, a California federal district court held that the plaintiffs stated a claim under the ADA only to the extent that Target’s website offered services connected to its physical stores.  

“The Target litigation lays bare the unworkability of the requirement that a website is only subject to the ADA if its use involves a connection to a physical store,” the Blick court said.

The Blick court posed a number of hypotheticals that raise questions about the feasibility of the physical nexus test.  Would a company that only sells goods online suddenly become subject to the ADA if it decides to open a physical store?  Would a retailer with both a physical store and website be able to start discriminating on its website if it closes its store? 

The Blick court adopted the approach of courts within the Second Circuit, which have held that the ADA applies to web-based businesses even if they don’t have a physical location.  In this case, the ADA applies to the plaintiff’s claim even though some goods and services on Blick’s website are only available online, the court said.

Steven L. Baron, attorney for Blick and a partner at Mandell Menkes LLC in Chicago, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 8 that while Blick wants its site to be accessible to as many people as possible, it “remains concerned about the fairness of imposing standards on websites when the Department of Justice is still developing them.”

Once the DOJ issues rules on how businesses’ websites can comply with the ADA, that will “hopefully settle the ambiguity that’s out there,” he said.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen how the Blick court will ultimately rule in the case, and how other courts will respond to its arguments.