A California federal court recently broke new ground in ruling that a company may be held liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA") for failing to make its website sufficiently accessible to persons with physical disabilities, including the blind.
In the class-action case of National Federation of the Blind ("NFB") v. Target Corp., __ F.Supp.2d ___, 2006 WL 2578282 (N.D.Cal. 2006), the Northern District of California determined that the ADA applies to a company's website so long as there is a sufficient connection or "nexus" between the use of the website and "the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation." In other words, if a company's website contains features which are sufficiently connected to goods and services offered by the company at some public location, the website itself must be accessible to those with physical disabilities. In the Target case, the court found that such a connection exists between Target Corporation's "Target.com" website and its Target stores, because the website offers features that enhance the public's enjoyment of the goods and services offered at the brick and mortar Target stores.
The NFB filed the lawsuit in February 2006 charging that Target's website had a variety of access barriers that prevented blind patrons from making full use of the website. Citing established guidelines for website accessibility promulgated by the Web Accessibility Initiative ("WAI") and the federal government, the National Federation alleged that Target had failed to include in its website design a variety of features such as (1) "alternative text" for website images which allows screen-reading software used by the blind to describe the images; (2) the ability to navigate the website without the use of a mouse (by keyboard only); and (3) adequate prompting and labeling which enables blind customers to fill out online forms.
Target moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the ADA applies only if the alleged access barriers on its website deny blind patrons physical access to Target's brick and mortar stores, and not just its website. The federal court disagreed, holding that the ADA more broadly applies to a company's website if there is a sufficient connection between a customer's use of the website and the full enjoyment of goods and services offered at a public location.
The court ruled that the NFB sufficiently alleged such a connection by citing a variety of services on Target's website that enhance the enjoyment of the goods and services offered at the Target stores. Such services include, among other things, a store locator, an online gift registry, an online photo shop which allows patrons to retrieve ordered photographs from a Target store, coupons for products redeemable at the Target stores, and weekly ads describing store specials. The Target decision opens the door for other courts to apply the ADA against retailers or other companies which maintain websites that do not meet current website accessibility standards. While the Target case involved website access by blind persons, websites which contain audio clips without redundant text may likewise deprive persons with hearing disabilities from equal access under the ADA.
In light of the Target ruling, every company with a website should consider, preferably with the assistance of counsel, whether a sufficient connection exists between the website itself and the "goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation." If so, the company's next steps should be to: (1) obtain an accessibility evaluation of the company's website, and if necessary, to (2) make design changes to conform the website to current accessibility standards.
The changes necessary to make a non-accessible site accessible are straightforward and should be within the expertise of IT departments that design their companies' websites in-house.
If you would like further assistance in evaluating your company's website in accordance with the recent Target decision, please contact a member of Loeb's Employment and Labor Group.
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