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Business websites must comply with the ADA, federal appeals court rules

A pizza company’s website must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal appeals court ruled Jan. 15. Furniture retailers likely would be subject to the same requirement.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed a lower court decision in Robles v. Domino’s Pizza. The plaintiff, who is blind, sued because he was unable to use the company’s website and mobile app to place orders and obtain online-only discounts.

The ADA, enacted in 1990, requires places of public accommodation to provide access to people with disabilities. In its most obvious application, businesses must offer convenient parking and ramps rather than stairs for people with restricted mobility. But businesses have broader responsibilities under the law.

“Even though customers primarily accessed the website and app away from Domino’s physical restaurants, the panel stated that the ADA applies to the services of a public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation,” the court said in a summary of the ruling. “The panel stated that the website and app connected customers to the goods and services of Domino’s physical restaurants.”

Domino’s contended that it shouldn’t be held in violation of the ADA because neither the law, nor the U.S. Department of Justice, which administers it, provides any details on how websites must comply. The court disagreed.

“While we understand why Domino’s wants DOJ to issue specific guidelines for website and app accessibility, the Constitution only requires that Domino’s receive fair notice of its legal duties, not a blueprint for compliance with its statutory obligations,” the panel wrote.

The appellate panel didn’t expressly rule in the plaintiff’s favor but remanded the case to the lower court to determine whether the Domino’s website and app comply with the ADA. But it said the test is simple: If the plaintiff can’t use them, they violate the law.

Yet, how to achieve compliance – and to anticipate every problem an online user might encounter – isn’t so easy. The Web Accessibility Initiative publishes voluntary guidelines, which furniture retailers should consult. HFA also urges the U.S. Department of Justice to issue compliance standards to help businesses understand their responsibilities under the law.

The 9th Circuit covers California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Hawaii. A similar case is pending in the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Ga.., so the final legal outcome has not yet been determined.

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