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E-Commerce Websites Targeted in Series of ADA Lawsuits in Pittsburgh

C.P. Hoffman 12/15/17

In the past week, a Pennsylvania woman has filed at least five lawsuits against e-commerce sites for alleged violations of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The lawsuits were all filed in the federal district court in Pittsburgh.

Antoinette Suchenko, who has been legally blind since undergoing retina surgery two decades ago, has alleged that the websites of a number of online retailers, including Kylie Jenner Cosmetics, Framebridge, and eBags.com, are inaccessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired who use screen readers to access the internet. The lawsuits request court orders requiring the retailers to work with web accessibility consultants to make their websites accessible.

Suchenko has also filed similar complaints against the financial services firm Social Finance, which operates the website SoFi.com, as well as the residential real estate company Redfin.

These lawsuits add to a growing body of cases focused on standalone websites that do not have a connection to a physical store or office. While a number of courts have allowed suits against standalone websites to proceed, others, such as the recent case against supermarket chain Winn-Dixie, have required that the website have a nexus to a physical location.

Appellate courts are currently split on this question. Commentators have long assumed that the Third Circuit of Appeals, located in Philadelphia, was among those requiring a physical nexus. In a 1998 case involving disability insurance, Ford v. Schering-Plough Corp., the Third Circuit ruled that “a public accommodation is a place,” and that not all services offered at a place of public accommodation are covered by ADA Title III.

The Ford decision would seemingly bar most of Suchenko’s lawsuits. But, in April, a federal judge in Pittsburgh refused to dismiss a series of lawsuits under Title III, despite the fact that websites were not physical places, because the websites were properties that the defendants owned, operated, and controlled, through which customers accessed their services. The decision, however, focused on the question of whether a defendant could be sued over an inaccessible website, not whether the website had a sufficient nexus to a physical place of public accommodation. Indeed, at least one of the defendants, AmeriServ, operated a number of bank branches throughout the state.

However tentative it might be, the decision has created new uncertainty, opening a window for lawsuits like Suchenko’s. Until the question is resolved by the Third Circuit, we may see a lot more digital accessibility complaints under ADA Title III coming out of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

This blog post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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