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National Federation of the Blind, et al. v Target Corporation

No. C 06-01802 MHP (N.D. Ca., Sept. 5, 2006)

Americans With Disabilities Act Claim Alleging Website Inaccessible To The Blind Allowed To Proceed

Denying, in part, a motion to dismiss, the Court allowed plaintiffs to proceed with claims that allege that the failure of defendant Target Corporation ("Target") to make its Target.com website accessible to the blind violates various statutes that prohibit discrimination against the disabled, including the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. 12182.  The Court did, however, dismiss so much of plaintiffs' claims that sought to challenge the accessibility of those portions of the Target.com site that "offer information and services unconnected to Target stores."  At this time, plaintiffs were only allowed to proceed with claims that challenged the accessibility of portions of the Target.com site that, if inaccessible, would "impede the full and equal enjoyment of goods and services offered in Target stores."  The Court noted that it may, in the future, permit plaintiffs to pursue broader claims if it was established that Target's site and stores are part of an integrated merchandising effort.

The Court denied plaintiffs' motion for mandatory injunctive relief, seeking to compel Target to make its site accessible to the blind.  Issues of fact as to whether the site, as presently constructed, was accessible to blind internet users using 'screen reader' programs precluded a finding at this time that plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits of their claims, and mandated denial of their request for injunctive relief.

Plaintiffs Allege That The Failure To Make Target.com Accessible To The Blind Violates The Americans With Disabilities Act

This putative class action was commenced by plaintiffs the National Federation of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind of California (collectively the "National Federation").  These organizations represent, and advocate on behalf of, the blind.  According to a recent press release, the National Federation has over 50,000 members.

Defendant Target is one of America's largest retailers, operating 1400 stores nationwide.  Target also operates a web site at Target.com, at which customers can get information about, and perform functions related to, Target's stores, including ordering prescriptions or photo prints for in-store pick-up.  Customers can also use the site to purchase items available in Target stores.

Plaintiffs allege that Target.com is inaccessible to the blind.  More particularly, Plaintiff's allege that the site lacks certain "alternative text" coding that would permit "screen reader software" to vocalize the contents of the site to blind users, and enable them to navigate its links via a keyboard instead of a mouse.  Importantly, plaintiffs claim that the cost of the modifications necessary to permit the blind to use the site is not prohibitive.

Plaintiffs claim that the failure to make the site accessible to the blind constitutes a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") because it denies the blind equal access to both goods and services offered at a place of public accommodation -- namely Target stores -- as well as a service of a public accommodation -- namely the Target.com web site.

The ADA prohibits "discrimination against the disabled in places of public accommodation."  'Discrimination,' under the Act, "encompasses the denial of the opportunity by the disabled to participate in programs or services" of, or offered at, places of public accommodation, or "providing the disabled with separate, but unequal, goods or services" thereat.

Thus, the statute provides, in pertinent part:

No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation … 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a).

To sustain a claim for a violation of the ADA based on the inability to enjoy a service "of" a public accommodation, "a plaintiff must allege that there is a 'nexus' between the challenged service and the place of public accommodation."

When such discrimination is discovered, the ADA mandates "reasonable modifications" to correct it via the use of "auxiliary aides" such as communication devices and ramps.  Aids that will "fundamentally change the nature of the good or service, or result in an undue burden," do not, however, have to be implemented.

Offsite Services Offered By A Public Accomodation Must Comply If There Is A Sufficient Nexus To The Public Accomodation

Target sought to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the ADA is only applicable to 'places of public accommodation' and services offered thereat.  Because in the Ninth Circuit a 'place of public accommodation' can only be a physical space, defendant argued its Target.com website, which existed only on the Internet, was not a place of public accommodation, rendering the ADA inapplicable, because Target.com was neither a physical space, nor a service offered at a Target store.

The Court rejected this argument, holding that the ADA applied not only to places of public accommodation and services offered thereat, but also to services "of" a public accommodation.  In addition, the ADA applied not only to services that effected a disabled persons ability to access a place of public accommodation, but also to services offered by such a place of public accommodation.  Because Target.com was a service offered by Targets stores, and had a sufficient nexus thereto, the Court denied, in part, Target's motion to dismiss.  The requisite nexus between the services offered by Target.com and the place of public accommodation (the Target store) was established by the fact that the website could both be used to order goods or services at, and to obtain information about, Target stores.  Said the Court:

[T]he Court finds that to the extent that plaintiffs allege that the inaccessibility of Target.com impedes the full and equal enjoyment of goods and services offered in Target stores, the plaintiffs state a claim, and the motion to dismiss is denied.  To the extent that Target.com offers information and services unconnected to Target stores, which do not affect the enjoyment of goods and services offered in Target stores, the plaintiffs fail to state a claim under Title III of the ADA.  Defendant's motion to dismiss this portion of plaintiffs' ADA claim is granted.

The Court did dismiss so much of the complaint which sought to challenge the accessibility of those portions of "Target.com [that] offers information and services unconnected to Target stores, which do not affect the enjoyment of goods and services offered in Target stores…".

Constitutional Challenge To Applicability Of State Antidiscrimination Statutes Premature 

The Court denied defendant's motion to dismiss on the ground that the requested modifications sought by plaintiffs would require defendant to fundamentally alter the nature of the site, in violation of the statute's auxiliary aid provisions.  Defendant alleged, in part, that it could comply with the ADA without altering its site by providing, by way of example, the necessary information via telephone.  This issue was not appropriately resolved on a motion to dismiss, held the Court.

The Court also declined, at this time, to rule on defendant's motion to dismiss claims plaintiffs advanced under various California state statutes designed to protect the disabled, including the Unruh Civil Rights Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 51, and the Disabled Persons Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 54.1.  Defendant argued that application of these statutes to Target.com violated the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution by impermissibly extending the reach of such statutes beyond California's borders to a nationwide website.  Moreover, application of these statutes to online activity, defendant claimed, impermissibly extended California's reach to an area -- the Internet -- that required uniform, and not state by state regulation.  The Court declined to resolve these challenges at the motion to dismiss stage, in part because the statutes at issue might regulate California-only conduct if Target elected, as a remedy, to create a web site solely for California customers that complied with the state statutes at issue.

Issues Of Fact Preclude Award Of Mandatory Injunctive Relief

Finally, the court denied plaintiffs' motion for mandatory injunctive relief, which sought to compel defendant to adopt such remedial measures as are necessary to make Target.com accessible to the blind.  Plaintiffs had failed, at this time, to establish that they were likely to succeed on their claims that Target.com as it presently existed was inaccessible to the blind.  Instead the Court held that issues of fact existed as to the ability of the blind to access Target.com using Jaws screen reader software.

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