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Website Accessibility: The Next ADA Domino – Supreme Court Declines to Decide Website and Mobile App Accessibility Case

on Thursday, 2 January 2020 in Labor & Employment Law Update: Sarah M. Huyck, Editor

The United States Supreme Court has refused to decide an appeal by Domino’s Pizza, Inc. (“Domino’s”) that challenged a lower-court opinion requiring the company to ensure its website and mobile app are accessible to people with disabilities. The Supreme Court’s decision to refrain from deciding the case raises questions for businesses that must navigate the increasingly complex issue of accessibility in the digital age. 

In 2016, a blind plaintiff named Guillermo Robels sued Domino’s in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, claiming that the pizza chain violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which requires public facilities be accessible to people with disabilities. Robels alleged that Domino’s website and mobile application (“app”) were incompatible with the screen-reading software that Robles uses to access the Internet. Specifically, he argued that the ADA requires Domino’s website and app to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”), voluntary website-accessibility standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium. 

The district court originally dismissed the lawsuit, holding that requiring Domino’s website and mobile app to comply with Title III of the ADA without any “meaningful guidance” from the U.S. Department of Justice violated Domino’s due process rights.   

Robels appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit reversed, concluding that Domino’s had fair notice of its obligations under Title III, which applied to Domino’s website and mobile app. Domino’s argued that Title III only covers physical places, but the court held that Title III required Domino’s to ensure that its website and mobile app were accessible to people with disabilities because these virtual access points “connect customers to the goods and services of Domino’s physical restaurants,” which are places of public accommodation. The court noted that because customers could use the website and app to locate a nearby physical location, a sufficient “nexus” exists between the website and app and Domino’s restaurants. This nexus means that the ADA applies to Domino’s website and app, which the court found must be accessible for individuals with disabilities.  

Domino’s challenged the Ninth Circuit’s opinion by filing an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Domino’s argued that the ADA does not require businesses to make website and mobile apps fully accessible if they offer individuals with disabilities other options for accessing products and services, such as a telephone hotline. The Supreme Court declined to hear Domino’s appeal, and as a result, left the Ninth Circuit’s decision undisturbed.

Although the Ninth Circuit’s holding is not binding nationwide, digital accessibility issues will continue to raise questions until the Supreme Court weighs in. In 2018 alone, plaintiffs filed over two-thousand federal lawsuits asserting ADA violations stemming from website accessibility, nearly three times as many as 2017. The Department of Justice, the federal agency responsible for issuing regulations under Title III, has not yet provided any definitive guidance for businesses trying to navigate this burgeoning issue.

Until Congress specifically addresses digital accessibility or the DOJ issues regulations, businesses should be aware of the ADA when designing and operating websites and mobile apps. Businesses should take heed of the Ninth Circuit’s decision and assume that the ADA applies when a website or app facilitates access to delivery or pickup of goods and services at a brick-and-mortar location. In other words, if a company’s website or app offers a direct link to goods or services offered at a physical location, the company should ensure that individuals with disabilities have adequate access to those goods or services offered through the website.

David P. Kennison

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