Legal Update: December 2022

Happy New Year! Looking back over 2022, I’d say that, while district courts in some circuits (i.e. the Third Circuit and Second Circuit) continue bickering over whether the nexus requirement makes any sense in web accessibility cases, most of the law around web accessibility has been fairly settled. So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that there are fewer web accessibility cases that raise new topics.

This month, only one case that jumped out of my Lexis feed. In Ariza v. Coffee Beanery, Ltd., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 217917 (S.D. Fla. 2022), Victor Ariza sued a national coffee chain and its local franchisee because he was unable to access its goods and services because the coffee chain’s website was inaccessible.

After the complaint was filed, the defendant moved to dismiss—which the court rejected. So far, that shouldn’t be a surprise—but the court’s analysis is noteworthy for a few reasons.

Who Cares if the Website is Itself a Place of Public Accommodation?

Too many courts get hung up on analyzing whether a company’s website is itself a place of public accommodation. I’ve maintained that this argument is incorrect—that a website is a form of communication and not a place of public accommodation itself. The Ariza court agreed, identifying the defendant’s argument that the website was not a place of public accommodation as a red herring and instead serves as a connection point to a place of public accommodation. The coffee shop is the place of public accommodation; the question is whether the website has a sufficient nexus with that place of public accommodation and not whether the website is itself a place of public accommodation.

Franchisors Can be Held Liable for Websites Even If They Don’t Operate Places of Public Accommodation

In Ariza, Coffee Beanery maintained the website but the complaint was focused on the plaintiff’s inability to get access to the goods and services of the Coffee Beanery’s franchisee—an independent business that licensed the Coffee Beanery name. So the independent franchisor argued that, because it did not operate the franchisee’s place of public accommodation, it shouldn’t be held liable. The court rejected this argument. Relying on the remanded district court decision in Domino’s Pizza, it held that, “where, as here, the discrimination is being caused by an allegedly inaccessible Website that is alleged to create an intangible barrier that excludes Plaintiff from accessing the goods, services, privileges, or advantages of the physical store, the franchisor can be liable as the owner and operator of the website.” Id., at *13.

This is a pretty quick summary of an important case. The bottom line is that franchisors and franchisees can’t hide behind each other in trying to avoid liability for inaccessible websites that deny customers access to their goods and services.

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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