On May 21, a California state court in Los Angeles held on summary judgment that the Whisper Lounge restaurant violated California’s Unruh Act by having a website that could not be used by a blind person with a screen reader, and ordered the restaurant to make its website comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level 2.0 AA. The court also ordered the restaurant to pay $4,000 statutory damages. This is the second decision by a California state court on the merits of a website accessibility case. The first decision concerned the Bags n’ Baggage website. In 2017, a Florida federal judge conducted the first trial in a website accessibility case against Winn Dixie and held that the grocer’s website violated the ADA because it was not accessible to the blind plaintiff, and ordered Winn Dixie to make its website conform to WCAG 2.0 AA.
The court in the Whisper Lounge case rejected – as most courts on similar facts have – the restaurant’s argument that the website is not a place of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The court found that the restaurant’s website “falls within the category of ‘services….privileges, advantages, or accommodations of’ a restaurant, which is a place of public accommodation under the ADA.”
Next, the court noted that the restaurant presented no evidence in opposition to the plaintiff’s showing that the website was inaccessible on February 20, 2017 – the date the plaintiff said she attempted to use the website. The restaurant only submitted a declaration stating that the declarant was generally able to use the screen reader NVDA on the website from 2014 through 2017, without addressing the specific barriers the plaintiff said prevented her from using the website.
The restaurant also argued that it provided access to the information on its website by having a telephone number and email. The Court rejected this argument as well, finding that the provision of a phone number and email does not provide “equal enjoyment of the website”, as the ADA requires, but instead imposes a burden on the visually impaired to wait for a response via email or call during business hours rather than have immediate access like sighted customers. Thus, the court reasoned, the email and telephone number do not provide effective communication “in a timely manner” nor protect the independence of the visually impaired. The court did not say whether a toll-free number that is staffed 24-hour a day would have yielded a different outcome.
Finally, the Court rejected the restaurant’s argument that the WCAG 2.0 AA is not yet a legal requirement, finding that the Complaint did not seek to hold the restaurant liable for violating the WCAG 2.0 AA. Rather, the Complaint alleged that the website discriminated against the plaintiff by being inaccessible and sought an injunction to require the restaurant to make its website accessible to the blind. The Court also rejected the restaurant’s arguments that requiring it to have an accessible website violated due process and the court should wait until the Department of Justice issues regulations addressing website accessibility. The Court noted that the fact that the restaurant was redesigning its website did not render the case moot because the restaurant did not establish that “subsequent events make it absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.”
The decision does have a silver lining for the defense bar. The Court noted that the plaintiff was entitled to only $4,000 in damages under the Unruh Act, which provides for a minimum of $4,000 in statutory damages for each incident of discrimination. The court held that plaintiff’s repeated visits to the same inaccessible website did not establish separate offenses for purposes of calculating damages.