Introduction

Legal Update: May 2022

Legal Update: May 2022

Here's my monthlyl legal update a day early! All things considered, May was a pretty slow month in my morning Lexis feed...

Stretching the Nexus Requirement: Can a Vending Machine be a Place of Public Accommodation?

Courts in California continue to make the nexus standard for web accessibility confusing. In Langer v. Carvana, LLC, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 82668 (C.D. Cal. 2022), Chris Langer, who has significant hearing loss, sued Carvana because Carvana’s website did not include captioned videos. Carvana is an online buyer and seller of used cars. Carvana does not operate any retail establishments but does operate a number of vending machines where buyers can pick up cars that they have bought online. Carvana then moved to have the case dismissed. The court noted that Carvana does operate physical places of public accommodation—its vending machines. And because Mr. Langer did not allege that Carvana’s lack of captioning on Carvana's website interfered in any way with accessing or using those vending machines, Mr. Langer had not met the nexus requirement for bringing a lawsuit.

To me, this reasoning is absurd. While a vending machine may facilitate sales, I can’t imagine that anyone would ever think that an unattended vending machine is a “sales or rental establishment” under Title III of the ADA. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Magee v. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Inc., 833 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 2016) ruled that vending machines are clearly not places of public accommodation—and the Department of Justice took this same position when Magee was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Last month, I blogged about how district courts were narrowly reading the nexus standard for bringing web accessibility cases. Because the ADA prohibits discrimination by places of public accommodation, the Carvana court focused only on what happened at Carvana’s vending machines. Instead, the court should have acknowledged that Carvana operates no places of public accommodation and so the case should have been dismissed on that basis alone.

I find it very interesting to see how courts struggle with interpreting the nexus standard in ADA Title III cases. In some cases, courts say there is no nexus unless a feature on the website impeded or interfered with access at a physical establishment. This is roughly the Winn-Dixie approach as well as the approach mentioned by several district court decisions. I believe it’s more logical to also include any feature on a website that facilitates access to benefits, services, or opportunities at a physical location. This broader approach was considered in cases like Domino’s Pizza. Once that connection is made between physical places of public accommodation and the company’s website, it only makes sense that everything on that website becomes subject to Title III.

Intent to Return and Standing to Sue

Most longtime readers of this blog (or folks who have attended one of my legal update presentations) know that there is a long line of cases that stand for the proposition that a plaintiff doesn't have standing to sue unless they can demonstrate that they had a genuine interest in becoming a customer of a business--  even if the company's website was inaccessible. See, e.g., Griffin v. Department of Labor Fed. Credit Union, 912 F.3d 649 (4th Cir. 2019); Walker v. Sam's Oyster House, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158439 (E.D. Pa. 2018); Mitchell v. Toledo Metro Credit Union, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 184800 (N.D. Ohio 2018). It's easiest to think of this as the “no harm no foul” defense—if the plaintiff didn’t suffer any injury, they shouldn’t be able to bring a lawsuit. But what if a plaintiff does genuinely want to become a customer of a business but the company’s inaccessible website makes it impossible to determine if the company meets the plaintiff's needs?

This scenario came up this month in Gomez v. Tribecca, Inc., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84695 (C.D. Cal. 2022). In this case, Mr. Gomez wanted to visit his aunt in California but needed a rental car near either a train, plan, or bus terminal. While Mr. Gomez was blind, his girlfriend offered to go with him, rent a car near the transportation station, and drive him to his aunt’s house. He was strongly interested in using the services of Tribecca, a car rental agency, but could not use its inaccessible website. In one of the few web accessibility cases that went to all the way to trial, the court ultimately ruled that Mr. Gomez did not have standing to sue. The court acknowledged that the barriers on the website deterred Mr. Gomez from visiting one of Tribecca’s physical locations. However, sometime before filing his complaint, Mr. Gomez discovered that none of Tribecca’s locations were convenient to his travel plans and so he was unlikely to become a customer. The court found this discovery to be fatal to Mr. Gomez’s lawsuit.

Although the website's inaccessibility allegedly initially prevented Plaintiff from learning the locations of Defendant's rental cars, Plaintiff knew by the time he filed his Complaint that the locations were nowhere near [his aunt's house] ... and he did not demonstrate that they were close to any train or bus stations, or the airport that Plaintiff would have used to get to a California rental car agency in the first place. In short, Plaintiff did not demonstrate that this service was relevant to him, so the harm he suffered by being unable to access the website was merely "informational" and "dignitary." See Griffin, 912 F.3d 649, 653-57 (finding these harms insufficient to confer standing under the ADA). For these reasons, the Court finds Plaintiff lacks standing to sue for injunctive relief under the ADA.

Gomez v. Tribecca, at *11.

Mr. Gomez did want to become a customer—it is simply that barriers on the defendant’s website made it impossible to discover if he could become a customer. It seems unfair that Mr. Gomez should have to put up with this needless frustration and waste of time. As a lawyer, however, I think that the decision makes sense because in order to bring a suit, a plaintiff has to allege a concrete “injury in fact”—and that frustration and wasting time usually doesn't count.

It's been a tough couple of months for Mr. Gomez. As I mentioned in last month's legal update, Mr. Gomez is also the named plaintiff in a number of lawsuits against California wineries and realtors-- and just about every one of these cases are being heavily scrutinized by the courts. Maybe the Sunshine State isn't that friendly to him and he should focus his attention on Southern Florida where he currently lives? And now that the Eleventh Circuit has vacated its opinion in Winn-Dixie, he should have no trouble bringing the same kind of lawsuits a little closer to home.

Disclaimer

Nothing in this post should be interpreted as legal advice or as forming an attorney-client relationship. It is offered for educational purposes only. You should always contact a qualified attorney in your area to discuss your legal rights and responsibilities.

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