U.S. Supreme Court Denies Domino’s Appeal to Determine Whether Websites Must Be Accessible

In what is seen as a win for accessibility advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Domino’s petition to appeal a lower-court decision on whether the pizza chain’s website and mobile app must be accessible to those with disabilities. The earlier U.S. 9th Circuit court ruled that websites fall under Title III of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The original case was brought forth by Guillermo Robles, a blind man, who claimed the Domino’s website and app did not allow him to place an order in 2016. Robles, like many other people with disabilities, relies on screen-reader software to use the web. Despite using such software, he was not able to make an order.

The primary issue of the case was whether the ADA applied to websites or apps in the same way that they applied to brick-and-mortar locations. Title III specifically points out public places of accommodation but not websites.

The specific section of the ADA related to the case reads as follows:

Section 36.201(a) contains the general rule that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation.

Full and equal enjoyment means the right to participate and to have an equal opportunity to obtain the same results as others to the extent possible with such accommodations as may be required by the Act and these regulations. It does not mean that an individual with a disability must achieve an identical result or level of achievement as persons without a disability.

The 9th Circuit decided the ADA also applied to businesses on the internet.

There were three key issues in the case: whether the ADA applied to the website and app, whether Domino’s had fair notice to comply, and whether the court or the Department of Justice (DOJ) should decide the case.

The DOJ is the body that regulates the ADA. Since it was signed into law in 1990, the DOJ has not created specific guidelines for how businesses can ensure their websites are within the law.

One argument is that it would have been cheaper and easier for Domino’s to follow accessibility standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Such arguments don’t address the need for meaningful regulations from a governing body. The WCAG are not legal guidelines in the U.S. However, the 9th Circuit ruled that the lack of guidelines does not remove Domino’s responsibility.

Circuit Judge John B. Owens wrote in the 9th Circuit decision, “While we understand why Domino’s wants DOJ to issue specific guidelines for website and app accessibility, the Constitution only requires that Domino’s receive fair notice of its legal duties, not a blueprint for compliance with its statutory obligations.”

The lack of such regulations is why this case was important from Domino’s standpoint. While they lost the case, it may further push the need for more specific guidelines for businesses, both large and small, to follow.

The lack of specific regulations could also be seen as a feature rather than a bug, to use a developer phrase. Government-specific rules are often slow to keep up with the changing nature of the web. Guidelines that apply one day may need to change soon thereafter. It also leaves businesses the ability to make their websites accessible via a method of their choice rather than limiting what they can do to potentially bureaucratic rules that are out of touch with the modern web.

At the same time, it could leave smaller business owners without large legal and website development budgets wondering if they could be looking at lawsuits in the future. Courts were flooded with 2,285 accessibility lawsuits in 2018, which was nearly triple the 814 cases in 2017.

What Does This Mean for Website owners in the U.S.?

In terms of the case, the Supreme Court didn’t make a ruling. They denied Domino’s petition and left the decision of the 9th Circuit in place, which covers much of the western U.S. In the coming years, more cases will make their way through the courts. More than likely, case law will continue becoming stronger in favor of making websites compliant with the ADA.

If you run an online business, it’s past time to make sure your website is accessible. It could be years before the current law is amended or new ones are written on the legislative level. The winds of change will likely not favor those with inaccessible websites as more court decisions come down.

In a nutshell, businesses with websites, apps, or other online presences need to make sure all people have access to their goods or services. While there are no specific guidelines in the U.S., WCAG is the largely agreed-upon standards internationally.

If you’re a small business owner using WordPress, you should start with a WordPress theme labeled as accessibility-ready. It is worth noting that “accessibility-ready” does not mean that your website will automatically become accessible. It simply means that the WordPress theme meets a minimum number of accessibility guidelines. Custom content on your website should also follow the same guidelines.

Accessibility is not a set-it-and-forget-it type of thing. It’s something that business owners need to continually evaluate and make sure that all their customers, regardless of how that person accesses the internet, can enjoy the same services equally.

The official theme review team is working through a long-term plan to make all themes accessible at WordPress.org. Many theme businesses outside of WordPress.org also comply with those same guidelines. If purchasing a theme, you should check with the business beforehand.

As always, if you’re unsure whether your website meets legal guidelines, you’ll need to consult a lawyer who specializes in website accessibility.