ADA Website Accessibility: California Court Requires Restaurant to Comply At Additional Cost

  • A California appellate court recently ruled in Thurston v. Midvale Corp. that a restaurant is required to bring its website into compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.
  • The court's decision is in line with numerous courts that have held websites that are covered by the ADA when connected to a physical place of public accommodation.
  • The WCAG guidelines, though not codified in law, are identified as the standard of accessibility required by numerous courts.

In Thurston v. Midvale Corp., the California Court of Appeals for the Second Appellate District affirmed a trial court's ruling that a restaurant's inaccessible website violated both California's Unruh Civil Rights Act and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and required the restaurant to bring its website into compliance with the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Thurston, who is blind and uses screen reader software to access the Internet, attempted multiple times to access the appellant restaurant's website. Thurston sued after she was unable to access portions of the website with her screen reader, alleging appellant violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).  In affirming the trial court, the Court of Appeals held that Thurston's inability to access the website's online menu and reservation system deprived her of equal access to the restaurant's services, and caused her difficulty, discomfort, and embarrassment.  In reaching its conclusion, the Court analyzed various federal courts' analyses of the ADA in relation to places of public accommodation and website accessibility, determining that websites connected to a physical place of public accommodation "[are] not only consistent with the plain language of [the ADA]" but also "consistent with Congress's mandate that the ADA keep pace with changing technology to effectuate the intent of the statute."  The Court of Appeals refused to take the stricter approach taken by some courts that the ADA applies to websites independent of any connection between the website and a physical place.

The court rejected numerous defenses raised by the defendant restaurant, including its argument that the lower court injunction ordering it to comply with the strictly voluntary guidelines of the WCAG 2.0, which have not been adopted by the Department of Justice, violated its due process rights.  The court also rejected the restaurant's argument that the provision of an email address and telephone number for the restaurant constituted an effective alternate means of communication.  In rejecting this argument, the court pointed to deposition testimony that, unlike the website,  the telephone number and email address provided were not monitored 24 hours a day, forcing the plaintiff to depend on others for information and thereby depriving her of her independence: "[The] [restaurant] did not offer any evidence refuting Thurston's statement that the use of a telephone number or email would deprive her of independence[,] the use of either required her to depend upon another person's convenience to obtain information."

The Thurston case is the latest in a growing number of cases to determine that website accessibility with a connection to a physical business is covered by the ADA.  In addition, the court's affirmance of an injunction mandating compliance with the WCAG guidelines provides prospective plaintiffs with additional support that the WCAG guidelines are the standard to be followed by business websites.  With this in mind, businesses would benefit from reviewing their websites to determine whether they meet the WCAG standards for providing equal access to their goods and services.

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