In a landmark August 2022 decision, the California Court of Appeals narrowed the scope of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Unruh) to the extent that they s apply to online businesses only. 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 Court of Appeals held that online-only business websites are not places of public accommodation within the meaning of the ADA or with regard to the Unruh . The move is a welcome relief to small and medium-sized businesses across the country that have been the frequent target of demand letters and lawsuits from California plaintiffs.
Unruh Law and ADA Background
In California, persons with disabilities have historically used Unruh and ADA Title III to secure access to physical places of public accommodation. Passed in 1959, the Unruh states that “all persons” are entitled to “full and equal accommodation, benefits, facilities, privileges or services in all commercial establishments of any kind.” Unruh allows a plaintiff to recover statutory damages of $4,000 per violation. Notably, while Unruh allows a plaintiff to recover statutory damages, the ADA only allows a plaintiff to seek injunctive relief and attorneys’ fees.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Unruh and the ADA led to a flurry of litigation targeting restaurants, hotels, medical facilities, and educational hunches, among others, to ensure they had parking spaces. , toilet cubicles, entrances, etc. needs of customers with disabilities. More recently, since the Internet has become a staple of daily life, disability lawsuits have evolved to target online “places”. Over the past decade, there has been a surge in lawsuits against companies alleging that their websites are not accessible to the hearing and visually impaired because they contain material that is not captioned or is incompatible with screen reading software enabling blind users to browse the Internet. Since the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has barred website-based ADA and Unruh Act claims against businesses without a physical presence, California plaintiffs’ businesses routinely bring stand-alone Unruh Act claims without claims. ADA parallels in the courts of the State of California. in an effort to avoid the referral of their lawsuits to the Federal Court, where they are subject to referral. See Cullen versus Netflix, 600 Fed. Approx. 508, 509 (9th Cir. 2015).
Analyse of Martinez
In Martinez, a blind plaintiff sued a cleaning products company that sold products exclusively through its website. The case raised a first impression issue in California state courts: Is a website a “place of public accommodation” within the meaning of the ADA and, therefore, subject to the Unruh? ?
Ultimately, the Martinez The court answered the question with a “no,” aligning California state law with Ninth Circuit case law. After reviewing the text and history of Title III and analyzing US Department of Justice regulations, the court concluded that “a place of public accommodation” must be connected to a physical location. Martinez, 2022 Cal. App. LEXIS 673, at *43 n.9 (“As noted, in order to constitute a ‘public accommodation’, the entity in question must be both a ‘facility’ and a public accommodation.”). Martinez thus prevents plaintiffs from bringing complaints of inaccessibility of websites against e-commerce companies that do not also have physical facilities in contact with customers.
Importantly, the Court of Appeal noted that “we do not accept the failure to treat the known discriminatory effects of a policy as being on their own sufficient to establish intentional discrimination under the law on Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the FCC could not have asserted a claim under the Unruh Civil Rights Act on that basis.” Identifier. to *14. The Martinez The Court’s decision will likely have an immediate and dramatic effect on the volume of Unruh website accessibility claims brought in California state courts. However, any potential lull may be temporary, as the plaintiff-appellant will likely appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.
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