Two Federal Courts Dismiss ADA Website Accessibility Claims

In the last two months, at least two federal district courts have dismissed website accessibility lawsuits filed against private companies under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), proving that this issue continues to be the Achilles Heel of the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Regulatory Arena.

For context, imagine a blind person who is unable to make online mortgage payments because his bank’s website did not provide him the means.  The DOJ is tasked with enforcing the ADA, a federal statute that provides for equal access to places of public accommodation, including private businesses, for such persons with disabilities.  However, the text of the ADA is silent about public accommodations’ websites, and a recent executive order aimed at decreasing federal regulations has all but eliminated any chance that the DOJ will issue regulations on that topic.  The absence of such regulations has emboldened disability advocacy groups across the nation to flood the courts with lawsuits against companies alleging a failure to provide equal access to audio, audiovisual, or other content made available online.

Not so fast, said the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.  On March 20, 2017, in the case of Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, No. 16-06599, the federal court dismissed ADA web accessibility litigation brought against the enormous food retailer, Domino’s.  The court relied on the “primary jurisdiction doctrine,” which allows courts to dismiss complaints pending the resolution of an issue that is “within the special competence of an administrative agency.”  Noting that Congress has vested exclusive authority with the DOJ to promulgate regulations defining what web accessibility standards to impose on private companies, the court concluded that it was inappropriate to render judgment against Domino’s in the absence of such regulations.

There are various other legal issues that arise in ADA web accessibility cases, including the concept of standing, which means having a concrete injury that can be rectified by a court order, and whether a website is a place of public accommodation.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, in the case of Gomez v. Bang & Olfusen America, Inc., No. 16-23801, shed light on both issues.  The Gomez court dismissed an ADA web accessibility claim brought by a plaintiff who contended that the company’s website could hypothetically impede a blind person from enjoying all the benefits of the company’s retail stores on the basis that the plaintiff did not have a particularized injury (i.e., standing).  As the court concluded, “[h]is generalized grievances are wholly unconnected to any harm he actually suffered at the place of public accommodation (i.e. the concrete, physical store) and are therefore insufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.”  The court also recognized that websites are not included in the ADA’s express list of public accommodations: “If Congress – recognizing that the internet is an integral part of modern society – wishes to amend the ADA to define a website as a place of public accommodation, it may do so.  But the Court, having no legislative power, cannot create law where none exist.”

Although these cases may suggest a shield to ADA web accessibility litigation, there are just as many courts across the country taking completely opposite views.  For example, only one year ago, a Massachusetts federal court rejected the “primary jurisdiction doctrine” (relied upon in Robles) as a basis to dismiss ADA web accessibility claims made against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  See Nat’l Ass’n of the Deaf, et al., v. Harvard Univ., et al., No. 15-30023; Nat’l Ass’n of the Deaf, et al. v. Massachusetts Inst. of Tech., No. 15-30024.  Given the national split over these issues and the unlikelihood that the DOJ will issue clarifying regulations, businesses should be cautious.

The first step a business should take to minimize the risk of expensive litigation and exhausting DOJ investigations is to designate an ADA coordinator/compliance group to audit its website.  Companies should simultaneously work with counsel so that reports and findings from these audits are generated under privilege.  In addition, companies should adopt strong website accessibility polices and staff training materials.  Moreover, one of the most effective ways to stave off litigation is to provide a customer service, like a hotline, devoted to assisting customers who encounter difficulties in accessing a company’s web content.

Those with questions about these emerging issues or looking for a preliminary assessment of their legal exposure under the ADA should contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Brigette N. Eagan, Esq., Counsel with the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at beagan@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

 

Refusing to Attend a Fitness-For-Duty Exam May Not Be Grounds For Termination under the ADA

On January 25, 2016, the New Jersey Appellate Division clarified the requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the related guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as to when employers may require a medical examination or make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability. In the case of In Re Paul Williams, the appellant-employee began working as a truck driver for the Department of Public Works for the Township of Lakewood in November 2003. In March 2013, the Township received an anonymous letter, purportedly written by another Public Works employee, expressing concern regarding Mr. Williams’s mental state and fear for his and his co-workers’ safety. More than eight months later, the Township scheduled psychological examinations and warned Mr. Williams that he would be subject to discipline should he fail to attend. Mr. Williams refused to attend and maintained that the examinations were not job-related and were thus illegal under the ADA. Under the ADA, examinations are lawful if they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  The Township thereafter issued a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action seeking his termination on the grounds of incompetency, inefficacy or failure to perform duties and other related charges. After the departmental hearing, the matter was appealed to the Office of Administrative Law.

The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that there was not adequate evidence of the Township’s investigation into the anonymous letter to determine its veracity and thus agreed with Mr. Williams that the demand to attend the examinations was not related to work performance or any allegation of disruptive behavior. Moreover, the ALJ found that while Mr. Williams had failed to attend the exam, the request lacked a reasonable basis and thus, he could not be disciplined. The Township appealed the decision to the Civil Service Commission which reversed the ALJ’s determination.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the guidance set forth by EEOC which defines “job-related and consistent with business necessity” as instances where an employer reasonably believe (through direct observation or reliable information from credible sources) that an employee’s medical condition is impacting his or her work or that, because of the medical condition, the employee serves as a direct threat. As the EEOC points out, “[t]hen and only then, may the employer lawfully require the employee to undergo a psychological fitness-for-duty examination.” The EEOC’s guidance also provides that employers may not require an employee to take a medical exam when the information received is based in whole or in part on information learned from third party unless it is reliable and would suggest that the employee’s ability to perform job duties or that a direct threat exists as a result of the medical condition.

The Appellate Division affirmed the EEOC’s guidance and sided with Mr. Williams, noting that the Township waited over eight months to require psychological examinations based largely on “innuendo and rumor” contained in the anonymous letter. Thus, the Court found that the Township failed to meet its burden under the ADA of demonstrating the examinations were “job-related and consistent with business necessity” and that Mr. Williams was a direct threat to himself, others or property. The Appellate Division ordered Williams reinstated and back pay calculated for his time suspended.

Employer Takeaways:

  • Requiring employees to attend a fitness-for-duty examination must be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” Employers must have objective evidence to support any required medical examination.
  • An employer must conduct a timely individualized assessment to determine the reliability of third party information regarding an employee’s medical condition: the relationship of the source to the employee, the seriousness of the medical conditional the possibility motivation of the third party providing the information, how the third party learned of the information, as well as other evidence that the employer has that bears on the reliability of the information.

For more information regarding compliance with accommodating disabilities, requiring independent medical examinations in compliance with the ADA, and EEOC’s guidance regarding same, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.