Domino’s Pizza May Deliver the Supreme Court a Chance to Modernize the ADA

The Supreme Court of the United States could soon provide greater clarity to the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) jurisdiction over websites and mobile apps.

Domino’s Pizza is reportedly preparing a petition for certiorari to appeal a Ninth Circuit decision, Robles v. Domino’s (913 F.3d 898), which held that blind plaintiff, Guillermo Robles, could proceed with a lawsuit against Domino’s after alleging the pizza purveyor’s website and mobile app were inaccessible to him using screen-reading software. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision of the district court and held that the ADA applies to the website and mobile application as services of a place of public accommodation. If the Supreme Court accepts Domino’s “cert petition” for Robles, the Court would have the opportunity to rule on the issue of whether websites and mobile apps must comply with ADA standards.

The ADA was passed in 1990 under President George H.W. Bush as the “world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities.” Since then, the ADA has been further refined and empowered by a mix of legislation and landmark Supreme Court cases. The ADA, at its core, is a law that “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.”

Although the ADA’s jurisdiction over those places listed above is clear, its claim over the internet has been tenable at best. The ADA still does not address digital or online compliance specifically, even as our lives become increasingly digitized. The current state of the law regarding online compliance to ADA standards is made up of a patchwork of federal appellate court decisions, which often have different or contradicting standards. This legal uncertainty was highlighted in 2018, in which over 2,250 website accessibility lawsuits were filed in the U.S., increasing from 814 the year before. Still, the Supreme Court has yet to take up one of these cases to provide clarity in the law and relief to lower courts. A ruling by the Court on a website accessibility case could replace the appellate patchwork of case law with a single federal standard.

In Robles, the district court granted Domino’s summary judgment motion and dismissed the case holding that “imposing […] standards on Domino’s without specifying a particular level of success criteria and without the Department of Justice (DOJ) offering meaningful guidance on this topic … fl[ew] in the face of due process.”

The case was then appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the district court’s dismissal, holding that the ADA applied to websites and mobile apps for operators of places of public accommodation. This holding reaffirmed the standard “that, to be covered by the ADA, a website or mobile app must have a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation.” The court expounded upon this noting that the ADA applies to services “of a place of public accommodation,” not “in a place of public accommodation.” The distinction by the court broadens the applicability of the ADA from beyond the physical space to websites and mobile apps.

The Ninth Circuit stated there was such a nexus, as the “alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises – which are places of public accommodation.” Additionally, the Ninth Circuit held that due process did not require DOJ to issue specific guidelines as Domino’s had been on notice “since 1996 of DOJ’s position that its website and app must provide effective communication.”

After the decision by the Ninth Circuit, Domino’s requested a sixty-day extension to file a petition of certiorari with the Supreme Court, which was subsequently granted by Justice Kagan; the petition must now be filed by June 14, 2019. In the request, Domino’s states, “[t]he Ninth Circuit’s decision in this case presents important and complex issues concerning the scope of the ADA, the resolution of which will have a significant impact on all businesses and institutions seeking to maintain an online presence.”

The stage is set for an overdue landmark determination of the extent of ADA’s jurisdiction over websites and mobile applications if a “cert petition” is filed and granted. A decision by the Supreme Court, in this case, could have immediate and far-reaching implications for both businesses and individuals covered under the ADA. Thus, lawyers, industry leaders, and ADA-covered individuals are closely watching this case as it develops.