The Americans With Disabilities Act Applies Only To Physical Places

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies, Fire Watch, Law Enforcement Briefing Room, Private Education Matters, Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education, Public Education, Public Employers, Public Safety
DATE: Oct 06, 2023

Dominick Martin and Rusty Rendon are both blind and serve as “testers” to assess whether places of public accommodation are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  They filed suit against Thi E-Commerce, alleging among other things, that the company’s website contained numerous access barriers that prevented visually impaired individuals from equal access to the site.  They further alleged that Thi failed to correct these barriers, even after receiving notice from Martin and Rendon.

The trial court dismissed the case, noting that websites are not public accommodations under the ADA unless barriers present in the website impede a disabled person’s access to benefits at the website holder’s physical facility.  No such physical facility was alleged here.  Martin and Rendon then appealed.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed.  Title III of the ADA provides, “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.”  The law provides 12 categories with specific examples to help define a “place of public accommodation.”

The Court concluded that a “place of public accommodation” requires a physical location for several reasons.  First, it is the most natural usage of the phrase “place.”  Second, the examples provided in the law are places that traditionally operate out of a physical location open to the public.  And third, other relevant regulations define the phrase in terms of a “facility” which is explicitly defined in terms of physical structures.  The Court noted that while the existence of websites was not considered in 1990 when the Act was established, there were other types of businesses in operation at that time that were not traditional brick-and-mortar buildings, such as mail order catalogues.  The Court concluded that Congress intentionally used “place” to exclude business without a physical presence.  Because this website did not involve or implicate benefits at a physical facility associated with the website, its failure to provide services to assist the visually impaired did not constitute a violation of the ADA.

Martin v. THI E-Commerce, LLC, 2023 Cal. App. LEXIS 704 (Cal Court of Appeal, 9/13/2023).

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