By Karina Brown
(CN) – Domino’s Pizza must make its website and mobile app accessible to blind people using screen-reading software, the Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday.
Guillermo Robles, a blind man, filed a federal lawsuit against Domino’s in September 2016, claiming the company thwarted him twice when he attempted to order a customized pizza. Its website and mobile app didn’t work with screen-reading software, which vocalizes visual information on websites. The company also offered online-only discounts, which Robles said were effectively off-limits for him. Robles claimed Domino’s violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and should make its online presence compatible with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines – private industry standards that have been widely adopted by federal agencies.
Robles’ attorney, Joe Manning, Jr., said in an interview cases like his will become even more relevant as technology progresses, offering new ways to access services and products. He pointed to mobile apps that help shoppers navigate the aisles of grocery stores and let Starbucks customers order ahead and skip the line to pick up their coffee, as well as stores that offer to run a preplanned order out to a waiting car.
“All of that new technology, whether it’s mobile websites or special kiosks, blind and visually impaired people want to use that,” Manning said.
S. James Otero, presiding judge for the federal court in Pasadena, dismissed Robles’ claims in March 2017. He found that, while the Americans With Disabilities Act does apply to Domino’s website and mobile app, applying it in the lawsuit would violate the company’s due process rights because the Department of Justice had not handed down standards for online accessibility or offered technical assistance to enact such standards.
But that finding didn’t hold water for the Ninth Circuit’s three-judge panel, which consisted of U.S. Circuit Judges John B. Owens and Paul J. Watford and U.S. District Judge Jennifer G. Zipps, sitting by designation from the District of Arizona. The company’s website and mobile app are critical avenues for the public to order online and find a nearby Domino’s restaurant, the panel ruled Tuesday.
“The alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s website and app impedes access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises – which are places of public accommodation,” Judge Owens wrote for the panel.
Imposing liability on Domino’s does not violate the company’s due process rights, the panel found, because the company has known since the Americans With Disabilities Act became law in 1990 that it must provide full and equal access to people with disabilities. And regulations from the Department of Justice have been clear since 1996 that such protection extends to websites, according to the panel.
The panel added that a lack of precise rules governing how companies must make their websites accessible doesn’t get Domino’s off the hook.
“While we understand why Domino’s wants DOJ to issue specific guidelines for website and app accessibility, the Constitution only requires that Domino’s receive fair notice of its legal duties, not a blueprint for compliance with its statutory obligations,” Owens wrote in the 25-page opinion.
The panel sent the case back to the district court for a ruling on whether the Domino’s website and app comply with the ADA mandate to “provide the blind with effective communication and full and equal enjoyment of its products and services.”
Attorneys for Domino’s didn’t respond to requests for comment. But Manning said the answer to the question laid out before the district court shouldn’t be difficult to determine.
“We’re very happy with this opinion because we think it will eliminate many of the common objections to accessibility and encourage companies to just start the process of making sites accessible instead of quibbling over the precise standard,” Manning said. “In the case of Domino’s, you can’t order a pizza. Isn’t that the test? We aren’t arguing over a comma here.”
A similar case is pending in the 11th Circuit. There, a blind man claimed screen-reading software couldn’t access the website for the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain. A federal court in Miami found in favor of the blind man. Winn-Dixie appealed, though its parent company, Southeastern Grocers, filed for bankruptcy in March. The 11th Circuit heard oral arguments in October, but it has not yet issued a ruling.