REALTORS® in Texas have received demand letters alleging their brokerage websites are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These letters typically come from an attorney and include threats of litigation and demands for monetary compensation.
How Does the ADA Affect Websites?
The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and ensures equal access and services to those individuals. The law focuses on places of public accommodation—facilities that are used by the public and affect commerce—and was written before websites were commonplace. However, the U.S. Department of Justice has held that if your business fits the definition of a place of public accommodation, the law may apply to your website.
The ADA’s requirement that businesses provide physically accessible spaces is undisputed. However, the ADA is silent on its application to the internet. Without guidance from the Department of Justice, businesses have been left to struggle with if and how to comply with the ADA in their electronic spaces. Although not part of the ADA, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards have been adopted by federal agencies to bring their websites into ADA compliance. Also, these guidelines are often cited by courts as the standard for website accessibility.
Recent Court Rulings
Consumers have turned to the courts to resolve accommodation issues, resulting in a mounting body of case law finding that the ADA’s existing accessibility requirements do in fact apply to a business’s online presence.
In Florida, a visually impaired consumer filed an ADA lawsuit against Winn-Dixie, a large grocery store chain (Gil vs. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc). The consumer alleged that the grocery store’s website was incompatible with screen-reading devices, thereby making the website inaccessible to consumers who used these devices. The court ruled that the ADA did apply to the grocery store’s website because the website was “heavily integrated” into the grocery store’s physical locations and operated as a “gateway” to the stores. The court ordered the grocery store to bring its website into compliance with WCAG standards.
In another case, a consumer in California filed suit against Domino’s Pizza (Robles vs. Domino’s Pizza, LLC). This case alleged that the pizza chain’s website was incompatible with screen-reading devices, preventing individuals who used these devices from making purchases. Domino’s Pizza argued that the court should delay ruling in this case because the Department of Justice had not issued specific rules for websites. Rejecting the company’s argument, the court held that a business can be held in violation of the ADA even though the Department of Justice has not promulgated specific website accessibility standards. The court further held that the ADA applies to websites that act as a connection to a physical place of public accommodation.
Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Texas, has ruled on this matter.
What You Can Do
There are no clear guidelines that will guarantee your website’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, the National Association of REALTORS® recommends the following actions:
- Ask the person in charge of your website if he or she knows the accessibility standards adopted in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). If not, hire someone who does.
- Audit your business’s website for accessibility using the WCAG standards. Create a plan to address any identified accessibility issues.
- Post an accessibility policy and notice on your website. NAR encourages members to use its accessibility statement on your website. You can find NAR’s statement via the Accessibility link at the bottom of NAR’s homepage or at nar.realtor/accessibility.
If you receive a demand letter alleging that your brokerage website violates the American with Disabilities Act, contact your attorney.