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Judge Nips 1-800-FLOWERS.com’s Motion to Dismiss Accessibility Suit in the Bud

C.P. Hoffman 03/07/18

Icon of a storefront with Title IIIThings aren’t coming up roses for 1-800-FLOWERS.com, which last month saw a federal judge in Massachusetts reject its bid to toss out a lawsuit alleging its website violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The lawsuit, filed by disabilities rights group Access Now, Inc., on behalf of three individuals who are legally blind and access the internet through assistive technology such as screen readers, alleged that 1-800-FLOWERS.com’s website contained “myriad barriers that prevent them access.” Alleged issues with the website included images without alternative text, unlabelled buttons and form fields, error messages that were difficult to locate and read, and the inability of the screen reader to go back to a prior page.

Last year, 1-800-FLOWERS.com filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the plaintiffs were trying to enforce the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, despite the standards not having the force of law under the ADA. Judge Indira Talwani of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts disagreed, however.

“Plaintiff’s Complaint does not allege that Defendant is liable for failing to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Instead, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant violates the ADA by ‘depriving blind individuals the benefits it affords non-disabled individuals,'” Judge Talwani wrote.

“The allegations in the Complaint, if true, could support a finding that Defendant violated the ADA by failing to take the steps necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated, or otherwise treated differently because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services from its websites.”

1-800-FLOWERS also sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the federal Department of Justice had not yet issued website accessibility regulations. Judge Talwani also rejected this argument, as the case could be decided on the basis of the ADA itself, without needing to wait for the DOJ’s rulemaking process. (In the months since 1-800-FLOWERS filed its motion to dismiss, the DOJ announced it was withdrawing its pending website accessibility regulations.)

Judge Talwani also rejected dismissal on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ complaint had not pleaded an injury in fact, that plaintiffs did not have legal standing to bring the claim, and that Access Now was unable to sue in its own right.

Courts are currently split over the question of whether Title III of the ADA allows lawsuits against standalone websites without physical storefronts. The 1-800-FLOWERS decision adds to a growing number of cases coming out of the First Circuit—which includes Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico—allowing suits against standalone websites. Some other courts, however, have held that website accessibility suits may only be brought when the website serves as a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation.

The 1-800-FLOWERS decision is important far beyond the borders of New England, however. Businesses with a nationwide customer base are susceptible to venue-shopping by prospective plaintiffs, with federal courts in Massachusetts and New York particularly friendly to Title III website accessibility claims. Just because a business is located in Birmingham doesn’t make it safe from a lawsuit in Boston.

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

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