In a significant August 2022 ruling, the California Court of Appeal narrowed the reach of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Unruh) as they apply to online-only businesses. 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 Appeals Court held that the websites of online-only businesses are not places of public accommodation within the meaning of the ADA or with regard to Unruh. This decision is a welcome relief for small and medium-sized businesses throughout the country that have been frequent targets of demand letters and lawsuits from California plaintiffs.
Unruh Act and ADA Background
In California, disabled persons have historically used Unruh and Title III of the ADA to ensure access to physical places of public accommodation. Enacted in 1959, Unruh states that “all persons” are entitled to “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” Unruh enables a plaintiff to recover statutory damages of $4,000 per violation. Notably, whereas 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 flood of litigation targeting restaurants, hotels, medical facilities, and educational intuitions, among others, to ensure that they had adequate parking spots, bathroom stalls, entryways, etc. to meet the needs of disabled patrons. More recently, since the internet has become a staple of daily life, disability lawsuits have evolved to target online “places.” Over the last decade, there has been a sharp increase in lawsuits against businesses alleging that their websites are not accessible to the hard of hearing and visually impaired because they contain elements that are not closed captioned or are incompatible with screen-reading software that enables blind users to navigate the internet. Because the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has foreclosed website-based ADA and Unruh Act claims against businesses without a brick-and-mortar presence, California plaintiffs’ firms routinely bring standalone Unruh Act claims without parallel ADA claims in California state courts in an effort to avoid removal of their lawsuits to federal court, where they are subject to dismissal. See Cullen v. Netflix, 600 Fed. Appx. 508, 509 (9th Cir. 2015).
Analysis of Martinez
In Martinez, a blind plaintiff sued a cleaning products company that sold products exclusively through its website. The case raised a question of first impression in the California state courts: is a website a “place of public accommodation” under the ADA and therefore, subject to Unruh?
Ultimately, the Martinez Court answered the question with a “no,” bringing California state law in line with Ninth Circuit jurisprudence. After examining Title III’s text and history and analyzing the United States Department of Justice’s regulations, the court reasoned that “a place of public accommodation” must be connected to a physical place. Martinez, 2022 Cal. App. LEXIS 673, at *43 n.9 (“As noted, in order to constitute a ‘place of public accommodation,’ the entity at issue must be both a ‘facility’ and a public accommodation.”). Martinez thus forecloses plaintiffs from bringing website inaccessibility claims against ecommerce businesses that do not also have physical customer-facing facilities.
Importantly, the Appeals Court noted that “we do not recognize a failure to address known discriminatory effects of a policy as alone sufficient to establish intentional discrimination under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the FAC could not have stated a cognizable Unruh Civil Rights Act claim on this basis.” Id. at *14. The Martinez Court’s decision will likely have an immediate, dramatic effect on the volume of Unruh claims regarding website accessibility brought in California state courts. However, any potential lull may be temporary, since the plaintiff-appellant presumably will appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.