How do ADA Title III and California’s Unruh Act affect your website?

Sunset in California where hundreds of lawsuits are filed under the ADA Title III and Unruh Act

 If you have a website, California’s Unruh Act AND ADA Title III affect you.

You could face lawsuits under both the Unruh Act and the ADA Title III if a California resident can’t access information on your website.  California is second only to New York for ADA Title III lawsuits, comprising more than 25% of the 3550 cases in 2020. One contributing factor is the Unruh Act, which is a California state accessibility law prohibiting discrimination against state residents,  imposes a minimum $4,000 penalty against violators. 

Courts have interpreted the Unruh Act, like ADA Title III, to include website accessibility, and covers any website that California residents can access, no matter where the website’s company is located. While plaintiffs can only recover court costs and legal fees under the ADA Title III, they will recover at least $4,000 under the Unruh Act. Accordingly, plaintiffs bring lawsuits on both federal and state levels.

California is a leader in ADA Title III lawsuits for many reasons, but there’s one sure way to avoid them all: make your website and all digital content accessible.

Who faces Unruh Act and ADA Title III lawsuits?

California courts recently tried a landmark digital accessibility case. Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC is the first to have elicited a response from the US Supreme Court. Domino’s attempted to appeal a lower court’s decision that their mobile app functions as a service offered by a place of public accommodation (thereby covered under ADA Title III). The Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal. While that doesn’t sound significant, the Supreme Court most commonly declines to hear only cases when they have nothing to add, implying  that they agree with lower courts’ decisions. Their silent ascent clearly expressed their agreement with the Circuit court that websites are most certainly places of public accommodation. 

Long before the Domino’s decision in 2019, California State Court became the first to hear a digital accessibility case against a retailer in 2016. While ADA Title III cases had been filed before Davis v Bags’n’Baggage, none of them went to trial. Courts agreed with Davis, a California resident, that a website is a service offered by a place of public accommodation. As such, must be accessible when it has a nexus to a physical business, even though Bags’n’Baggage was located out of state. 

Jariwala v Vineyard Vines LLC is another case in which the plaintiff resided in California while the defendant did not. Vineyard offers classic, preppy clothing online but plaintiff Jariwala was unable to shop its website largely because it lacked alt text on its images, so his assistive technology could not describe the images to him. 

Several Los Angeles-based auto dealers were also targeted in digital accessibility lawsuits. Chris Langer v Los Angeles Motors, Eddie I. Sierra v Jaguar Land Rover North America, LLC and Eddie I. Sierra v. General Motors Company all dealt with inaccessible dealership websites. Plaintiffs were unable to find dealership information, access videos, and find other details about autos offered at the dealerships. 

This diverse group of defendants all have one thing in common- they failed to prioritize accessibility. Failing to make your website and digital resources accessible, risks excluding a sizable part of your audience (as much as 26%) and leaves you vulnerable to lawsuits.

How can you avoid ADA Title III AND Unruh Act digital accessibility lawsuits?

There is only one sure way to avoid both ADA Title III and Unruh Act lawsuits- make your website and all of your digital resources accessible to everyone. There’s no checklist to tick off to guarantee accessibility because each website is different. Using an automated accessibility checker to identify coding issues on a website is a start. Automated checkers can help you catch 20-30% of digital accessibility problems. But human verification is the only way to identify most accessibility issues. Even if a website includes the technical aspects of accessibility, such as including tags for elements like links, headings, or tables, the mere presence of those tags doesn’t guarantee accessibility. 

WCAG offers guidelines, not checklists

While there aren’t any checklists, there are guidelines. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) outlines 4 principles your website and digital resources should follow to be considered accessible. It’s considered the international digital accessibility standard. While the US Department of Justice has not officially specified that websites must follow WCAG to achieve ADA Title III compliance, digital accessibility lawsuit settlements often include mandating compliance with WCAG. It focuses on accessibility, not passing checkers, and is applicable to everything on your website. Remember, the law does not require that your content pass a checker; it requires that it be accessible to everyone.

Perceivable

Include alternative formats to all content. If it’s audio or video content, make sure it has subtitles and captions. Code visual content for compatibility with assistive technologies, which read content aloud or provide it in a tactile braille display.

Operable

Give your visitors navigation options. Make sure they can interact with elements using a mouse, keyboard, or other navigation devices.

Understandable

Keep the jargon to a minimum. Get your point across clearly and concisely so people of all understanding levels and attention spans can grasp information.

Robust

Website visitors must be able to access the website on whatever device they prefer and with any technology. The website should remain usable even with new or updated technology.

Don’t stop at web pages

Accessibility extends far beyond web pages, or even your most popular content. Make every website element accessible, including PDFs, which are commonly inaccessible if left unremediated. Even archived documents that aren’t frequently used need to be accessible. It only takes one visitor finding one inaccessible document to put you at risk for a lawsuit.

Having a mountain of archived PDFs to remediate can be overwhelming, but it can be one of the fastest, easiest parts of accessibility if you have the right tools.  Equidox offers PDF remediation software that uses smart detection tools, so you’ll only spend a few seconds on each page of most documents. Equidox will teach your IT or content creation team to remediate their own PDFs with free software training.

Enhance brand affinity

Diversity and inclusion have increasingly become hot topics. Consumers respond to brands that they perceive care about their visitors. Show you’ve considered the needs of all your potential customers by making your website accessible to everyone. This can broaden your audience and enhance brand affinity among visitors with disabilities as well as their family and friends. Share an accessibility statement touting your commitment to inclusion. Invite visitors to contact you (using an accessible contact form) if they come across any accessibility issues on your website.

Accessibility is key to compliance and inclusion

Remember that the only way to avoid both ADA Title III and Unruh Act digital accessibility lawsuits is to make your website accessible to everyone. Let the Equidox accessibility experts help you prioritize the digital accessibility process and make your PDFs accessible.

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Nina Overdorff

Nina comes to Onix with years of sales and marketing experience from a variety of industries, and holds a BS in Language Arts Education. Nina has a passion for words, storytelling, and information, which she believes everyone should have access to regardless of ability. After spending time as a teacher with a blind student, she became much more aware of the limitations and abilities of web accessibility, and how essential it is to those experiencing disabilities. “Being able to access information equally ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity for education, employment, and success in life.”