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, a recent California appellate ruling 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, at this time, Martinez thus forecloses certain plaintiffs from bringing website accessibility claims against e-commerce companies without customer-facing facilities.
Regardless of the current case law, however, website accessibility is likely to continue evolving as the Department of Justice promulgates regulations and cases, such as Martinez, are appealed to the state supreme courts. Consequently, it is vital for businesses to take measures to give all visitors equal website access, regardless of whether they have brick-and-mortar locations. 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.” 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. 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.”  Thus, businesses with an online-only presence may fall outside of the requirements of the ADA and Unruh.
While it is expected that the Plaintiff will ask the California Supreme Court to review the appellate court opinion, the decision, in the interim, should result in a decrease in lawsuits against online-only companies in California state and federal courts.
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.
 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.