Domino’s Pizza: Delivering an Important Precedent-Setting Case to a Courthouse Near You!
This past summer, Domino’s Pizza asked the U.S. Supreme Court to determine—after decades of uncertainty—whether and to what extent the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) applies to mobile apps and websites which connect consumers to brick-and-mortar establishments which are otherwise covered under the ADA. The Court hasn’t decided whether it will hear the case (a decision which could come any day now), but if it does, its eventual ruling will have enormous legal implications for Rhode Island business owners whose products or services are available via website or mobile app, and for many people with a disability covered under the ADA. If the Court rules in favor of the claimant and against Domino’s, it will help solidify the civil rights of anyone who has a disability impacting their use of the internet…and will also spawn a flurry of litigation and expose businesses across the country to unfathomable civil liability and litigation costs.
In 2016, the claimant—a blind man—sued Domino’s in one of California’s Federal Courts, alleging that Domino’s mobile app and website did not conform to the requirements of the ADA because they were not “fully accessible” to blind people such as the claimant. As is common with many petitions asking the Supreme Court to hear a case, this one is light on facts and heavy on law; however, according to Domino’s, for most of the time the lawsuit has been pending, Domino’s website and mobile app both contained an “accessibility banner” which offered disabled people such as the claimant in this case the option to call a live representative for assistance using the website or mobile app. But, according to the claimant, Domino’s was still in violation of the ADA because the written descriptions on some of the photos were not compatible with his screen-reading software. Therefore, he claimed, he couldn’t place an order via the app or website without calling the live representative. Worth noting here: the claimant, or perhaps more accurately, his attorneys, filed FOURTEEN similar lawsuits against various other businesses within a matter of months.
The U.S. District Court in California—the trial court in which the lawsuit was originally filed—granted Domino’s motion to dismiss. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—the appellate court with jurisdiction over appeals from federal courts up and down the west coast—reversed the trial court’s decision. The appeals court found that the mobile app and website have a strong enough connection (a “sufficient nexus” in legalese) to Domino’s physical locations that the ADA applied and required that Domino’s provide blind people “full and equal enjoyment” of the mobile app and website.
According to Domino’s attorneys, “[w]eb accessibility litigation particularly affects small businesses that need an online presence to stay competitive.” Every Rhode Island small business owner should pay close attention to this case: if the Court rules for the claimant, it could expose every business with an online presence to untold civil liability. Every person with a disability impairing his or her use of the internet should also pay attention: if the Court rules for Domino’s, it will—at least temporarily—allow businesses to effectively discriminate against anyone who can’t use the internet.
If the Supreme Court takes this case, my educated guess is that it will rule in favor of Domino’s. The ADA became law in 1990, when the internet was in its infancy, and the legislators who wrote and passed the ADA never could have envisioned the impact the internet would have on the way we shop, dine, and otherwise lead our everyday lives. By ruling in favor of Domino’s, the Supreme Court would enable the legislature to amend the ADA (if it so chose) to apply to mobile apps and websites, which would give business owners fair warning of the liability they may face if their sites and apps remain inaccessible.