In 2016, Guillermo Robles, a visually impaired man in California, sued Dominos Pizza. Why? Domino’s website and app were not compatible with his screen reader. Robles claimed this was a violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA requires businesses and public spaces to make their goods and services accessible to people with disabilities. The ADA is the federal law that mandates public buildings to have wheelchair ramps and special toilets for the disabled.
But since the ADA was passed in 1990 when the internet was still a newfangled technology used only by nerds, it doesn’t contain specific guidelines regulating the space. That was Domino’s entire legal argument.
While the ADA doesn’t contain specific technical requirements for web content accessibility, making web content accessible to the visually disabled is very much in keeping with the spirit of the law. That’s the reason Domino’s lost that lawsuit.
Robles initially lost the lawsuit in district court but he appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit ruled in Robles’ favor and the Supreme Court rejected Domino’s request to hear a second appeal on the matter, effectively reaffirming the Ninth Circuit verdict that the ADA should be applied to the internet.
Six years after the lawsuit was filed, Domino’s entered a confidential settlement with Guillermo Robles. Whatever Domino’s spent on the settlement is probably a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of dollars the pizza maker had to cough up in legal fees over the six years that the lawsuit dragged on.
What should you do?
To avoid Domino’s fate, run your website through a screen reader and make all the necessary adjustments to make your website as easily usable by the visually impaired as it is by everyone else. You should add appropriately descriptive alt text to your images and graphics and remove all redundant links. That’s usually enough.
Beware of lawsuits
Different countries have different laws regulating web accessibility for the visually impaired. In the United States, the ADA doesn’t carry legal penalties but getting sued can still be quite expensive. If a court order is issued against you, you will be responsible for the plaintiff’s legal fees. That’s on top of your own fees.
If you’re sued, you should just make the necessary adjustment so that when you go to court, you can argue that the lawsuit is no longer necessary because you have removed all the roadblocks the plaintiff is complaining about.
The only state with penalties is California, which will fine you $4,000 under the Unruh Act. It’s no surprise that plenty of lawsuit mills have sprung up within the state. They’re suing every website they can find for violations of the Unruh Act, which is a California state civil rights law. Some of these lawsuit mills are sending out 20 demand letters a day.
As some have put it, they probably have dozens of Filipino virtual assistants running hundreds of websites through screen readers to find the unlucky ones that made the mistake of not making their sites easily accessible. Don’t let that be you.
These lawsuit mills don’t care about accessibility. They’re running an extortion racket. They won’t sue you in federal court because plaintiffs are not awarded damages in federal court.
Federal law only requires that you remove any barriers the disabled may face when accessing your business because the goal is to improve access to public spaces for the disabled, not to punish businesses.
If you’re a restaurant, for example, it doesn’t mean that you must have menus printed in braille to cater to the blind. You can just read the menus to blind people and that would be fine. For websites, it’s the same standard. Make your site screen-reader compatible and you’re golden.
You only lose in federal court if you fight the lawsuit like Domino’s did. If you make your website screen reader-compatible as soon as you’re notified, there are no grounds for a federal court to issue an injunction ordering you to make the said changes. Avoiding an injunction also gets you out of paying the plaintiff’s legal fees.
But the ambulance chasers know this so they won’t take you to federal court. They sue in California’s state courts instead as they know they will get at least $4,000 under the Unruh Act. When you add legal fees on top of that, the costs start to stack up. The ambulance chasers always sue in California even if you live and operate from somewhere else. As long as someone can access your site from California, they can sue.
The ambulance chasers also know how much it will cost to fight the lawsuit so they ”generously” offer you a settlement. The amount is extortionate but they’re smart enough to make it lower than what you would pay your own lawyer to contest it.
This way, you’re incentivized to pay instead of fighting. They use their payout to hire more Filipino VAs to find more guys for them to shake down. But keep your website ADA-compliant and you never have to deal with such slimy lawsuit mills.