A review of the Target ADA case: California federal court denies motion to dismiss lawsuit over website accessibility

In the case of National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has held that it will allow in part, and dismiss in part, a lawsuit brought against Target by an advocacy group claiming that Target’s website violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Plaintiffs, national and state advocacy groups for the blind, claimed that defendant’s website (Target.com) is inaccessible to the blind, and therefore violates the ADA and similar California state laws. The plaintiffs have sought declaratory, injunctive, and monetary relief. Because Target.com allows a customer to perform functions related to Target stores, the plaintiffs argued, and because the website is not fully accessible to the blind, those customers are denied full and equal access and enjoyment of Target stores.

Target asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit for failure to state a claim, and presented three arguments in support: First, it argued that the ADA only prohibits discrimination in physical spaces. Second, it argued that any off-site discrimination must still deny access to a physical space. Third, Target argued that the website provides auxiliary aid in conformity with the ADA, and therefore no violation exists.

The court looked first to Title III of the ADA, which prevents discrimination against disabled persons in places of public accommodation. Title III states in part that “[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, [and] services … of any place of public accommodation…” 42 U.S.C. 12182(a). In rejecting the defendant’s first argument, the court emphasizes that the ADA applies to services of a place of public accommodation, and that the statute’s application is not limited to services offered in a place of public accommodation. This clear language indicates that the ADA applies to more than discrimination in physical spaces only.

The court next addressed defendant’s second argument, that off-site discrimination must deny access to a physical space to be considered an ADA violation. The court found this argument unpersuasive because the ADA prohibits non-physical barriers that keep a disabled person from enjoying the defendant’s goods and services. The court noted that because Target.com is integrated heavily with defendant’s stores, and because the website offers services and goods available in defendant’s stores, the website operates as a gateway to the store. Because the website is a gateway to a place of public accommodation, and because blind people cannot enjoy the services of the website, defendant may be violating the ADA.

The court then addressed defendant’s third assertion, that a satisfactory auxiliary aid is being provided. Defendant claims that all goods and services available on the website are also available on the telephone, and this satisfies the ADA’s auxiliary aid exception. The court rejected this argument by noting that this exception is an affirmative defense. Because the lawsuit was at the pre-trial motion phase, this affirmative defense was pleaded prematurely.

The court finished its discussion of defendant’s motion to dismiss by agreeing that the plaintiff failed to state a claim under the ADA inasmuch as the goods and services on Target.com are unconnected to Target’s brick-and-mortar stores. In a footnote, however, the court commented on the future of plaintiff’s ADA claim: “The website 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 customer-base, while on the other hand it seeks to escape the requirements of the ADA.”

National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation, 2006 WL 2578282 (N.D. Cal., September 6, 2006).