ADA Website Accessibility

California Appeals Case May Afford Some Protection from ADA Website Accessibility Lawsuits for Online-Only Businesses

Updated March 2024

Companies across the country have been grappling with website accessibility challenges, as serial plaintiffs have made mass filings alleging website inaccessibility in states where statutory damages are recoverable. However, recent California appellate rulings may create significant roadblocks for plaintiffs (and their attorneys) seeking to target online-only businesses by narrowing the reach of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act (“Unruh”).

In Martinez v. Cot’n Wash Inc. (Second Appellate District, Division One) No. B314476, 2022 Cal. App. LEXIS 673 (Ct. App. Aug. 1, 2022), the Appeals Court held that online-only businesses do not constitute places of public accommodation within the definition of the ADA and in regards to Unruh. Consequently, Martinez thus foreclosed certain plaintiffs from bringing website accessibility claims against e-commerce companies that operate exclusively online without customer-facing physical facilities.

On September 13, 2023, this stance was further reinforced by a subsequent ruling from the Fourth Appellate District of California in Martin v. Thi E-Commerce, LLC, which mirrored the rationale applied in Martinez v. Cot’n Wash Inc., strengthening the judicial perspective that the ADA’s accessibility mandates do not extend to the digital domains of purely virtual businesses.

Despite these judicial developments, the regulatory landscape surrounding digital accessibility remains in a state of flux. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is in the process of formulating regulations that may expand or redefine the ADA’s reach within digital contexts, indicating that the legal standards governing website accessibility are far from settled. Furthermore, there remains the potential for the Martinez decision, alongside similar appellate rulings, to be subjected to review by the California Supreme Court, which could offer additional clarity or modifications to the established legal precedent.

In light of the uncertain and evolving nature of website accessibility law, businesses are advised to proactively ensure their websites are accessible to individuals with disabilities. Adherence to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) not only serves to mitigate legal exposure but also enhances the inclusivity and user experience of digital platforms. This approach is particularly prudent given the surge in website accessibility litigation in jurisdictions like California, New York, and Florida, where plaintiffs may seek statutory damages, such as those provided under Unruh, which allows for $4,000 per violation.

As the legal and regulatory frameworks continue to develop, staying informed and compliant with emerging standards for digital accessibility will be crucial for businesses aiming to navigate the complexities of ADA compliance in the online environment. The decisions in Martinez v. Cot’n Wash Inc. and subsequent appellate rulings represent key moments in the broader dialogue on digital accessibility, underscoring the importance of both legal compliance and the ethical imperative to provide equitable access to digital resources for all users.

If you would like to learn more about website accessibility requirements and audits, we invite you to call our offices to schedule a consultation.

We also encourage you to Download Our Free ADA White Paper to learn more about ADA website accessibility best practices and free accessibility tools.

Why Are So Many Website Accessibility Lawsuits Filed in California?

Enacted in 1959, Unruh provides that all individuals are entitled to “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”[1] Unlike the ADA, which only allows a plaintiff to seek injunctive relief and attorneys’ fees, California’s civil rights act enables individuals to recover statutory damages of $4,000 per violation. For this reason, there has been an influx of lawsuits filed in states which allow for such damages, including New York, California, and Florida.

What Effect Could Martinez V. Cot’n Wash, Inc. and Martin v. Thi E-Commerce, LLC Have On Website Accessibility Lawsuits?

In Martinez, a California appeals court was asked to consider whether a business that only operates online constitutes a “place of public accommodation” as defined under the ADA. After providing an exhaustive review of the split case law among various federal courts, the ADA legislative history, and the lack of regulatory guidance by the U.S. Department of Justice, the court concluded that Title III of the ADA only applies to “places of public accommodation,” and that a website, standing alone, is not a “place.” [2] Thus, businesses with an online-only presence may fall outside of the requirements of the ADA and Unruh. This was further reinforced by the ruling in Martin v. Thi E-Commerce, LLC.

While it is expected that these determinations may be brought before California Supreme Court to review the appellate court opinions, the decisions, in the interim, should result in a decrease in lawsuits against online-only companies in California state and federal courts.

Download Our Free ADA White Paper to Learn More About ADA Website Accessibility Best Practices.

Because most commercial websites are generally available to prospective clients across state lines, there is a significant risk that businesses of all sizes may face one or more website accessibility lawsuits. The best course of action to avoid such lawsuits is to ensure that your website is equally accessible to individuals with visual, hearing, dexterity, and other impairments.

If you would like to learn more about tools and guidelines that can be utilized to improve your website’s accessibility, we invite you to download our free ADA website accessibility white paper. Still have questions? Call us at 520-261-8645 to schedule a consultation.

[1] Unruh Civil Rights Act, Department of Rehabilitation, CA Department of Rehabilitation.

[2] This decision is consistent with a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which found that internet-only businesses do not constitute places of public accommodation.