Court: Accessibility lawsuit against Target can proceed

A federal judge in San Francisco ruled Wednesday that a lawsuit filed against retailer Target by the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) regarding the accessibility of the retailer's Web site can move forward.

According to the NFB, the ruling sets a precedent establishing that retailers must make their Web sites accessible to the blind under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

"This ruling is a great victory for blind people throughout the country," said NFB President Marc Maurer. "We are pleased that the court recognized that the blind are entitled to equal access to retail Web sites."

When asked if the NFB would file lawsuits against other online retailers and sites, spokesman John Pare said, "You probably could imagine that we would."

John Dozier, an attorney at Dozier Internet Law PC, said the decision will prompt other companies to pay attention to the issues involved and modify their Web sites.

The lawsuit was filed as a class action on behalf of all blind Americans who are being denied access to target.com. The plaintiffs in the case -- the NFB, the NFB of California and blind college student Bruce "BJ" Sexton -- claimed that the retailer's Web site is inaccessible to the blind, in violation of federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities.

Target filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the laws in question don't apply to Web sites because they aren't "physical" places of public accommodation. The retailer further claimed that applying California statutes to its Web site, which is accessible to consumers nationwide, would violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The NFB filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to order Target to make its Web site accessible promptly. The judge denied that motion, however, because it would be premature for the court to rule on an injunction, since there are sufficient questions raised with respect to whether the average blind person is able to access Target's Web site.

"While disappointed the lawsuit was not entirely dismissed, Target is pleased with the court's decision to deny the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction," the retailer said in a statement e-mailed to Computerworld. "We believe our Web site complies with all applicable laws and are committed to vigorously defending this case. We will continue to implement technology that increases the usability of our Web site for all our guests, including those with disabilities."

Mazen Basrawi, a lawyer at Disability Rights Advocates, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said: "This is groundbreaking. No court has yet ruled directly that the ADA applies to Web sites, which she [Judge Marilyn Hall Patel] has clearly done in this opinion. We hope that it [this case] is going to encourage businesses to include accessibility in their Web development."

Basrawi said the case can be cited in future litigation, and if Patel publishes the decision, it will carry even more force. "She has really clarified the law," he said.

In her ruling, Patel said the ADA "statute applies to the services of a place of public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation. To limit the ADA to discrimination in the provision of services occurring on the premises of a public accommodation would contradict the plain language of the statute."

She said that it is clear from the complaint that many of the benefits and privileges of the Web site are services of the Target stores. "...[T]he challenged service [Web site] here is heavily integrated with the brick-and-mortar stores and operates in many ways as a gateway to the stores," Patel said.

Patel upheld the plaintiffs' claim under the ADA in the instances where the inaccessibility of Target.com impedes the full and equal enjoyment of goods and services offered in Target stores. But she dismissed the portion of the plaintiffs' claim that pertained to goods and services offered on Target.com that are not connected to the company's physical stores.

In an end note, the judge said, "The Web site is a means to gain access to the store and it is ironic that Target, through its merchandising efforts on the one hand, seeks to reach greater numbers of customers and enlarge its consumer-base, while on the other hand it seeks to escape the requirements of the ADA. A broader application of the ADA to the Web site may be appropriate if upon further discovery it is disclosed that the store and Web site are part of an integrated effort."

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