The court ruling means websites without a physical presence do not need to be ADA compliant.
In 1990, many years before online shopping and web entertainment became mainstream, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA” or the “Act”), 42 USC § 12101 et seq. Under Title III of the law, the ADA prohibits public accommodation from discriminating against people with disabilities. The key question posed to the Court in Winegard v Newsday LLC, n ° 19-CV-04420 (EK) (RER), 2021 US Dist. LEXIS 153995 (EDNY Aug 16, 2021), is whether a website without a physical retail operation open to the public is a “public hosting place” as contemplated by Title III of the ADA. The Court ruled that it did not.
The complainant in Vineyard is a deaf person who brought a lawsuit on their own behalf and on behalf of others against Newsday, a local newspaper company located in Queens, New York. Newsday distributes its newspapers throughout New York State, but does not have any physical retail activity. The newspapers are also available online on its website along with other content, such as videos. The complainant alleged that he was unable to watch the videos on Newsday’s website because they lacked captioning. The complainant alleged that Newsday violated the ADA because (1) Newsday denied deaf and hard of hearing people equal participation in viewing videos on its website; and (2) Newsday has not made reasonable modifications to the videos to allow access.
The court recognized that the plaintiff’s claims “stand or fall” on whether the Newsday website is a “public place of accommodation”. Initially, the Court noted that the term “public housing” has a long history and has been used in other anti-discrimination laws for over a century to include only physical spaces. As further support, the Court recognized that the ADA lists fifty specific examples of places of “public accommodation” and that at least forty-nine relate unmistakably to physical places (the fiftieth example, a “service of travel ”, probably also relates to a physical place according to the Court). The Court ruled that Congress’ use of the term “public accommodation” was deliberate and expressed the intention that the law only apply to physical locations.
Although the internet has fundamentally changed the way businesses operate since the adoption of the ADA, the court rejected the argument that the drafters of the ADA could not have anticipated such changes. The Court explained that there were several businesses operating without a physical presence in 1990. One example is the Sears Roebuck catalog, which dates back to 1888. Other examples include the LL Bean catalog (1927), the J. Crew catalog (1983) and QVC teleshopping (1986). The Court found that Congress could easily have included these other companies within the scope of the ADA, but did not do so on purpose.
The Court distinguished the decision of the Second Circuit in Pallozzi v. Allstate Life Insurance Co., 198 F.3d 28 (2d Cir. 1999) – a case often cited to support the extension of ADA Title III to websites. In Pallozzi, the panel applied Title III of the ADA to an insurance company that allegedly failed to issue a joint life insurance policy to the plaintiffs due to their disability. The Vineyard Court noted that there was no dispute in Pallozzi that an “insurance office” is considered a “place of public accommodation” and is listed as a specific example of such under the Act. According to the Court, Pallozzi represents the proposition that a physical place is a prerequisite for the applicability of Title III of the ADA, and when satisfied, all goods and services sold by that public accommodation place fall within the scope of the law.
As a result, the Vineyard The court ruled that websites are subject to Title III of the ADA when they offer the same goods and services as their physical operations. However, without a physical operation open to the public, an exclusively online business venture is beyond the reach of the ADA. Although the Court recognized the public policy argument that ADA should apply to businesses that operate exclusively online given the critical role the Internet plays in the personal and professional lives of Americans, the Court explained that it is the responsibility of Congress to deal with this issue. , not the courts.