A second California Court of Appeal rules that websites with a nexus to a physical place of business are covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, while a California trial court insists that online-only websites are covered as well, contradicting the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
On June 18, 2020, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District became the second California Court of Appeal to rule, in Martinez v. San Diego County Credit Union (SDCCU), that websites with a nexus to a physical place of business where customers go are covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The first decision, in Thurston v. Midvale, was issued in September 2019 by the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal and affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Midvale violated the ADA and California Unruh Civil Rights Act by having a restaurant website that could not be used by a blind person with a screen reader. The SDCCU decision reversed a trial court’s decision that the website of a credit union with physical banking location was not a “public accommodation” under the ADA. These two California state court appellate decisions are consistent with the position of the federal U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which has also held that a website with a nexus to a physical place of business where customers go is covered by the ADA on the theory that the website is a service or benefit of a place of public accommodation.
The SDCCU decision is noteworthy because the Court of Appeal discussed at length what it means to have a “nexus” to a physical place of business. It noted that the courts have not yet articulated a single standard on this issue, but that most federal circuits and one California Court of Appeal (Midvale) have found that a nexus exists if the facts show the website “connect[s] customers to the goods and services of [the defendant’s] physical” place. This standard is much less demanding standard than in, say, the 11th Circuit, which requires plaintiffs seeking to bring ADA claims about inaccessible websites must show that a barrier on the website prevented them from enjoying the goods and services of that physical place.
The SDCCU Court of Appeal expressly withheld its opinion on whether a website with no nexus to a physical place (i.e. an online-only business) is covered by the ADA since the defendant credit union had a physical location.
On that question, at least one California state trial court (in Riverside County) has (recently) decided that an online-only business is covered under Title III of the ADA. In Martinez v. Kydia Inc., the trial court acknowledged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had reached the opposite conclusion in several cases but chose not to follow these holdings. Instead, the Court of Appeal framed the issue as “whether equality applies to a non-physical marketplace within the meaning of Title III of the ADA.” The court noted that there is “no direct guidance in California through the district courts”, and that it was “not persuaded” by the Ninth Circuit’s Domino’s (and Target) decision because there was a nexus in those cases, before examining decisions in out-of-state district courts on the issue. The SDCCU Court of Appeal cited dicta in the Thurston v. Midvale Court of Appeal decision that “Congress intended the ADA to ‘keep pace with rapidly changing technology’ and “[e]xcluding websites just because they are not built of brick and mortar runs counter to the purpose of the statute.”
The takeaway from these cases is that in California state and federal courts, the websites of brick and mortar businesses falling into the definition of a “public accommodation” under Title III of the ADA are covered by the law. Whether online-only businesses are covered by Title III of the ADA remains an open question in California state court, with at least one trial court now saying the answer is yes.