A California state appeals court ruled Monday that an online retailer of cleaning products without a physical location cannot be held liable for an inaccessible website under the state’s discrimination law, in a lawsuit filed by a blind plaintiff.
The complaint alleged that Philadelphia-based Cot’n Wash Inc. violated the state’s Unruh Act, which protects businesses from discrimination, “by intentionally maintaining a retail website that was inaccessible to the visually impaired because it was not fully compatible with screen-reading software.” said the decision of the Los Angeles-based California Court of Appeals in Alejandro Martinez v. Cot’n Wash Inc.to confirm a lower court ruling.
The California Supreme Court “has held that the discriminatory effect of a facially neutral policy or measure is not alone a basis for inferring intentional discrimination under the Unruh Act,”; a three-judge panel ruled.
The ruling also held that for Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits disability discrimination in public accommodations and commercial establishments, to apply, there must be a connection to a physical space.
The ADA’s “plain language does not establish that under Title III, purely digital retail sites are “places of public accommodation,”” the ruling said.
Attorneys in the case did not respond to requests for comment.
Kristina Launey, a partner with Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Sacramento, Calif., said that while the ruling can be appealed, the California Supreme Court gets to decide which cases it accepts for review, and does so in only about 5% of cases.
There are currently no federal regulations that specifically cover the issue of website accessibility for the blind under the ADA. Launey said in July that the Justice Department planned to begin the rulemaking process to adopt website accessibility rules under Title II of the ADA, which apply to public entities, meaning Title III-related regulations could follow.
Website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal court rose 14% to 2,895 in 2021, not including filings from state courts, according to Seyfarth Shaw data.