Domino’s Could Fuck Up the Internet for People With Disabilities Because They Won’t Just Fix Their Website
In 2016, Guillermo Robles sued Domino’s because the pizza chain’s website and app didn’t work with screen-reading software, making their online services inaccessible to him and other users with visual impairment. Robles, who is blind, claimed that on at least two occasions, he was unable to order a custom pizza from the company’s website, so he sued, alleging that Domino’s had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
At the time of the lawsuit, a district court ruled that Domino’s negligence to create an accessible website for people with visual impairments did violate the ADA, but because the Department of Justice “had failed to provide helpful guidance” on what specifically constitutes an ADA-compliant website, the court ultimately granted Domino’s motion to dismiss, since such regulations would eliminate any due process concerns.
But the Department of Justice ended up scrapping its plans to roll out such guidelines, thousands of similar lawsuits have since been filed against businesses failing to make the digital extensions of their services accessible, and the fight to make the web a more inclusive place remains a thorny and shifty legal issue.
The Domino’s lawsuit serves as a model example of the fight between businesses and people with disabilities over the enforcement of accessible online services, even in the absence of set federal guidelines. Though the district court originally dismissed the case, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Robles this year, deciding that accessibility standards apply to online services just as they apply to businesses covered by the ADA.
This was an important win for accessibility rights online. But now, in what experts say is an unprecedented move, Domino’s wants to take this case to United States Supreme Court. If the company gets its way, the potential decision could have dire implications for online accessibility and the fate of similar lawsuits that, like Robles’, are chipping away at the internet’s tenacious and appalling inaccessibility.
Lawsuits like Robles’ are hardly uncommon. In fact, thousands of cases involving inaccessible websites have been filed in federal court in just the last year. But Domino’s case is unique among this flood of lawsuits in its decision to file a motion to have such a case heard by the nation’s highest court. If the case is picked up, the pizza chain that is arguably most associated with online delivery would have a chance to make history in its refusal to accommodate customers with disabilities.
The argument in favor of Robles is that the ADA extends beyond just “places of public accommodation,” which are specifically covered under Title III of the ADA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Robles v. Domino’s Pizza that businesses with physical accommodations—namely, a Domino’s restaurant—need to ensure that websites and apps used to access covered services are accessible for people with disabilities. This includes supporting screen-reading software so that blind users like Robles are able to navigate and interact with digital content.
Title III of the ADA specifically “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations.” Historically, this referred to brick-and-mortar spaces, and in the absence of language that directly applies to the digital world the omission creates a shifty loophole for businesses hit with these types of lawsuits. But the Ninth Circuit put consequential weight on the word “of” in its Robles decision.
“Even though customers primarily accessed the website and app away from Domino’s physical restaurants, the panel stated that the ADA applies to the services of a public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation,” the court said in its decision (emphasis theirs). “The panel stated that the website and app-connected customers to the goods and services of Domino’s physical restaurants.”
Using this reading of Title III, the Ninth Circuit overturned a 2017 decision from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to dismiss the case on the grounds that, because the Justice Department has not yet issued regulations governing how Title III applies to the internet, requiring Domino’s website and apps to comply with the ADA was a violation of its due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
“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,” the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit wrote in its appeal in January of this year.
Because of these conflicting federal court decisions, Domino’s pet