California Court of Appeals Rules Online-Only Commercial Websites Are Not “Public Accommodations” – Discrimination, Disability and Sexual Harassment

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On August 1, 2022, the California Court of Appeals joined longstanding Ninth Circuit precedent in determining that online-only businesses are not “public accommodations” covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) in Martinez vs. Cot’n Wash, Inc.., 2022 WL 3025828 (Cal. Ct. App. 2022). This may signal a changing tide for employers and other businesses that have found themselves plagued by this particular type of ADA litigation.

Title III of the ADA prohibits “public accommodations” from discriminating on the basis of disability and requires businesses to make their facilities accessible. Historically, this meant designing or modifying physical facilities to be accessible (for example, adding ramps, enlarging door frames, etc.). However, in recent years, companies have also faced a slew of ADA access lawsuits based on claims that websites are not accessible to people with visual impairments. In California, home to more ADA accessibility lawsuits than any other state, many of these claims are filed under the ADA and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (the “Unruh Act”).

Martinez involved an ADA and Unruh Act public hosting claim by a blind plaintiff, who claimed he was unable to use screen reading software to navigate a website for an online-only cleaning supplies company, Dropps.com.

In reviewing the ADA’s statutory text and its regulations, the court noted that the definition of “public accommodation” still includes terms such as “premises”, “facilities” or “facilities”.[ies]”words whose dictionary definitions imply physical location. The court also reviewed the ADA’s history and noted that Congress and the Department of Justice (the Title III enforcement agency) have been divided – or simply inactive – for well over a decade despite the “known confusion” on the issue. As a result, the court refused “to adopt an interpretation of the law that is not dictated by its language”, and ruled that Dropps.com was not a “public hosting location” under the ADA because it had no physical presence.

Whereas Martinezwas limited to online businesses only, it has potentially significant implications for businesses that do not operate physical facilities open to the public. These companies can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for now.

California Court of Appeals Says Online-Only Commercial Websites Are Not “Public Hosting”

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