Unequal Access To Private Entities’ Website May Support Viable ADA Claim

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Jan 27, 2021

Abelardo Martinez (Martinez) is permanently blind and requires screen reading software, which vocalizes the visual information on the computer screen, to read website content when he accesses the internet.  When Martinez attempted to access the information on the website maintained by the San Diego County Credit Union (Credit Union), he asserted that he encountered “numerous access barriers,” such as missing alternative text, empty links, redundant links, and missing form labels, which precluded him from using his screen reading software.

Martinez filed an action against the Credit Union for violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.  The Unruh Civil Rights Act provides that “All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their … disability … are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” A plaintiff can recover under the Unruh Civil Rights Act on two alternate theories: (1) a denial of access to a business establishment based on intentional discrimination; or (2) a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Title III of the ADA (Title III) prohibits private entities from discrimination against disabled individuals.  Title III 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.”  To establish a violation of Title III, a plaintiff must show: (1) a covered disability; (2) “the defendant is a private entity that owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation; and (3) the plaintiff was denied public accommodations by the defendant because of [the] disability.”

Martinez sought recovery on both alternate theories; specifically, that the Credit Union engaged in intentional discrimination by maintaining its website in a form inaccessible to visually impaired individuals and by failing to take corrective action after notice, and the Credit Union’s website violates the ADA.

After the trial court dismissed Martinez’s action, he appealed.  The appeals court reviewed a few matters, including whether Martinez pled a viable claim for violation of the ADA.

The Court concluded that Martinez clearly established that he has a covered disability.  Therefore, the issue that remained was whether a website falls within the definition of a public accommodation under the ADA.  Given that there were no commercial websites when the ADA was enacted in 1990, a “website” is not one of the enumerated categories of public accommodations under the ADA, and in the years following the enactment of the ADA, the Department of Justice has not provided regulatory guidance on the topic.

In the absence of statutory or regulatory guidance, federal courts have reached two distinctive views on the issue of whether a website is a public accommodation.  The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on which view is correct.  The minority view, held by the federal First, Second, and Seventh Circuits, maintains that websites are “public accommodations” within the meaning of the ADA.  The majority view, held by the federal Third, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits, maintains that websites are not “public accommodations” under the ADA, “but a denial of equal access to a website can support an ADA claim if the denial has prevented or impeded a disabled plaintiff from equal access to, or enjoyment of, the goods and services offered at the defendant’s physical facilities.”  California is located within the Ninth Circuit.

After analyzing the minority and majority views, the Court applied the majority view to the facts before them, finding that it is was generally more consistent with the ADA.  Under the majority view, a disabled plaintiff can state a viable ADA claim for alleged unequal access to a private entity’s website if there is a sufficient nexus between the claimed barriers and the plaintiff’s ability to use or enjoy the goods and services offered at the defendant’s physical facilities.  In the case, the Court held that Martinez plead a viable ADA claim because he had alleged that the deficiencies in the website prevented him from gathering information about the Credit Union’s services, products, and physical locations.  The Court concluded that this indicated there was a sufficient nexus between the barriers Martinez claimed and his ability to use or enjoy the goods and services offered at the Credit Union’s physical locations.

Martinez v. San Diego County Credit Union (2020) 50 Cal.App.5th 1048.


California schools should be aware that members of the public may be able to state a viable ADA claim for alleged unequal access to the school’s website if there is a sufficient nexus between the claimed barriers and the individual’s ability to use or enjoy the goods and services offered by the school’s physical facilities.  Schools should take steps to confirm that their websites are compatible with screen reading software.

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