Bruce Sexton is a member of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the National Federation of the Blind of California (NFB-CA). NFB and NFB-CA are non-profit organizations mostly comprised of members who are blind. The organization's aim is to "promote the general welfare of the blind." Sexton is legally blind and uses JAWS screen reader software to access the Internet. He frequently uses the Internet for a variety of purposes, including researching products and comparing prices. On several occasions he attempted to use Target.com with his screen reader but was unable to fully access the website. Target is one of the U.S.'s largest retailers, operating 1,400 stores nationwide. Target also operates a web site at Target.com, where customers can get information about products, utilize services, and purchase items available in Target stores.
In early 2006, NFB and NFB-CA, on behalf of their members, and Bruce Sexton, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated ("Plaintiffs"), first brought suit against Target alleging that Target.com is not accessible to consumers who are blind. The suit charged that Target failed and refused to make its web site accessible to persons who are blind and, therefore, violated Title III of the ADA and two California civil rights statutes -- the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the Disabled Persons Act (DPA). Specifically, NFB alleged that the site lacks "alternative text" coding that permits screen reader software to vocalize the contents of the site to consumers who are blind, and enable them to navigate its links via a keyboard instead of a mouse. NFB reasoned that failure to make the site accessible constitutes a violation of the ADA because it denies persons who are blind equal access to both goods and services offered at a place of public accommodation (i.e., Target stores) as well as a service of a public accommodation (i.e., Target.com).In addition, plaintiffs claimed they suffered two access problems as a result of Target.com's inaccessibility: 1) they were denied access by being diverted to another store, and 2) they were denied access to Target stores because of additional in-store barriers. After the filing of the complaint, Target.com underwent modifications to become more accessible to individuals with visual impairments.
Target sought to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the Title III of the ADA, the Unruh Act and the DPA are only applicable to physical places of public accommodation and to services offered there; and since Target.com exists only on the Internet, it was not a place of public accommodation. The court rejected Target's argument, reasoning that the inaccessibility of Target.com impeded full and equal enjoyment of goods and services offered in Target stores pursuant to the ADA. The court subsequently dismissed Plaintiffs' claims that pertained to Target.com features not connected to its stores.
Plaintiffs filed for a motion for class certification. Plaintiffs sought certification of a nationwide class for claims arising under the ADA and a California sub-class for violations of the Unruh Act and the DPA. In response, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment.
Target argued that NFB and NFB-CA did not have standing to pursue the proposed class action because they are not "individuals" who are blind; that NFB and NFB-CA had not demonstrated injury in their own right; and that certification was improper because class members were still able to access the goods and services of Target stores. Target also contended that accessibility improvements to its website made the Plaintiffs' claims moot (i.e., no longer applicable).
Defendant Target filed a motion for summary judgment; that is, requesting the dismissal of plaintiffs' claims, on the grounds that Plaintiff Sexton had not suffered any legal injury. More specifically, Target asserted that Sexton did not prove the necessary connection between his injury and the place of public of accommodation. Target further argued that if Plaintiffs' claims under the ADA fail, then the state law claims must fail as well because neither the Unruh Act nor the DPA would apply to Target.com independent of an ADA violation.
The Court certified a nationwide class action suit on behalf of Internet users who are blind throughout the country under Title III of the ADA, and certified a California class action suit under the Unruh Act and the DPA against Target Corporation.
The Court concluded NFB and NFB-CA have proper standing, individually and on behalf of their members because organizations can assert the rights of their members where their members would individually have standing, even when the organization has not suffered injury itself. Moreover, Defendant's claim of mootness was rejected, because the court found that Target's modifications were incomplete and that there was potential for new pages to be added to Target.com.
For purposes of class certification, the court found that the Unruh Act and the DPA reached Target.com as a business establishment and place of accommodation and that a physical nexus was not required, because the definitional language of those respective statutes was broader than the ADA.
1) Numerosity: While Defendants argued that Plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence of numerous class individuals who used the Internet and Target.com, the court disagreed. The court explained that such evidence is likely unavailable or impossible to acquire, because class members were deterred from access in the first place. The court's reasoning reiterates an underlying concern surrounding the difficulty in obtaining evidence of website inaccessibility.
2) Commonality: Class members had common issues including whether the ADA covered websites as places of public accommodation and to what extent the Target.com website was linked to the physical stores, among others. Plaintiffs fulfilled this requirement.
3) Typicality: The court concluded that Mr. Sexton did not demonstrate an injury typical of the broader class, but that Plaintiffs were permitted to substitute a new class representative to satisfy the requirement. While Sexton's ADA claim was dismissed, the court found that the requirement of typicality was present throughout the remainder of the class, even though the injuries varied on an individual basis. The court reasoned that "[i]n most cases involving access under the ADA, there will be individual variations among class members in terms of the nature of their disability, the types of aids used, and the individual nature of each class member's encounters with the website and access to services and facilities." Thus, it was inconsequential that the class members' claims of inaccessibility were extensively divergent.
4) Adequate Representation: The court found Plaintiff's representation adequate to protect the interests of the class.
Based on the aforementioned factors, coupled with the fact that Plaintiffs sought injunctive, declaratory, and monetary relief, the court certified the nationwide class and California subclass.
The court granted Defendant's motion for summary judgment on Sexton's ADA claim, but allowed for the substitution of another plaintiff on the claim. Specifically, Sexton failed to establish how lack of access to the Target.com store prevented his access to the goods and services at the Target physical store.
Even while Sexton's ADA claim failed to meet the nexus requirement, the court found the DPA and the Unruh Act to apply to Target.com without a nexus requirement. Reasoning that the Plaintiff's state law claims do not rest on their ADA claims, the court denied Defendant's motion for summary judgment. The court found that questions for trial still remained, because Plaintiffs stated independent bases for their claims under the Unruh Act and the DPA and because the language of and intent behind the acts was seemingly broader than the protections under the ADA.
The ruling allowed the NFB to proceed with class action claims alleging that the failure of Target to make its Target.com website accessible to consumers who are blind constitutes a violation of the ADA and relevant California statutes.
This decision is applicable to businesses that are public accommodations under the ADA within the jurisdiction of the Northern District of California, if they have a web presence that offers to the public many of same goods and services offered by its physical place of public accommodation.
In August of 2008, Target Corporation reached a settlement agreement with the National Federation of the Blind. Depicted within the three year agreement, Target promised to ensure that its website met online accessibility guidelines. NFC agreed to confer to discuss periodic updates, as well as monitor the results of quarter and annual user accessibility tests. Target stipulated that its Target.com coding employees would attend periodic training to ensure website accessibility. Guest feedback was also a portion of the settlement, where users of screen-reading technology would test the site and report both to a compliance individual and to the NFB. Included in the agreement, were monetary damages in the amount of six million, to be paid to the Californian settlement class.
This decision and settlement lends support to the arguments of disability law and policy scholars that public and private institutions of higher education have legal obligations to ensure their on-line distance education programs are accessible to people with disabilities. See Distance Education Initiatives and Their Early 21st Century Role in the Lives of People with Disabilities (2007), available at http://bbi.syr.edu/staff/myhill/.