For at least a decade or so, there has been a legal debate about whether websites must comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) — 42 USC § 12101 — by being accessible to the blind and others with disabilities. The ADA generally requires that all “places of accommodation” be accessible to those with disabilities. The legal question has been whether the ADA applies to a non-physical “place” like a website. Generally, courts around the country have adopted what is called a “hybrid” approach holding that websites must be accessible to the blind, the deaf, and others with disabilities if:
- A business has a physical location and
- The business uses its website to attract consumers to the physical location.
Under those conditions, the courts have held that the website is sufficiently intertwined with the physical location that the ADA should be deemed to apply.
But the question of whether websites (and other non-physical things) are “places of accommodation” remains unresolved. However, a pair of federal judges here in New York have recently issued opinions holding that the ADA does NOT apply to websites and the internet when the website has no connection to a physical location.
The Facts of the Cases
In the first case – Winegard v. Newsday, LLC, Case No. 19-CV-04420 (US Dist. Court, ED New York 2021) – the plaintiff — Jay Winegard – sued Newsday, LLC for violating the ADA. Newsday did not provide accommodations for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who wanted to watch videos on its website. Winegard is hard of hearing. Newsday is a local media company in New York that distributes physical newspapers and a website. Newsday has no physical retail locations.
So, in this case, the website operated by Newsday does not “drive traffic” to any physical location. As such, the case law concerning the “hybrid” approach does not answer the legal question of whether the ADA applies to the Newday website. In the end, the court held that the ADA does NOT apply. Essentially, the court held that the ADA applies only to physical locations.
A judge issued a similar opinion in the case of Martinez v. Mylife.com, Inc., Case No. 21-cv-4779 (US Dist. Court, ED New York 2021). The plaintiff, in that case, filed a lawsuit against a website with no physical retail locations. Like the judge in Winegard, the court held that the ADA did not apply.
Both decisions are consistent with what many courts have held, particularly in California, where many techs, media, television, and film companies are located. For example, the Courts dismissed an ADA claim in the case of Young v. Facebook, Inc., 790 F.Supp.2d 1110 (N.D.Cal.2011). The court dismissed this because Facebook only operates online. The courts have dismissed cases against eBay and Netflix since both operate online. See Earll v. eBay, Inc., Case No. 13-15134 (9th Cir. 2015) (“Because eBay’s services are not connected to any “actual, physical place,” eBay is not subject to the ADA.”) and Cullen v. Netflix, Inc., 880 F. Supp. 2d 1017 (N.D. Cal. 2012).
It will be interesting to see how the Winegard and Martinez cases are resolved if they are appealed. The US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has not yet issued an opinion on this precise issue.
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