Judge Rules Accessibility Suit Against Target Can Proceed

Group claims retailer's Web site discriminates against blind patrons

A federal judge in San Francisco ruled this month that a lawsuit filed against Target Corp. by the National Federation of the Blind challenging the accessibility of the retailer’s Web site can move forward.

NFB officials contended that the ruling sets a precedent, establishing that retailers must make their Web sites accessible to the blind under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

“This ruling is a great victory for blind people throughout the country,” said NFB President Marc Maurer.

When asked if the NFB would file lawsuits against other retailers in an effort to improve Web site accessibility, NFB spokesman John Pare said, “You probably could imagine that we would.”

The lawsuit was filed a California Superior Court on Feb.7 as a class action on behalf of all blind Americans. The suit was moved to federal court a month later.

The NFB says the Target ruling sets a precedent.

The NFB says the Target ruling sets a precedent.The plaintiffs in the case — the NFB, the National Federation of the Blind of California and blind college student Bruce Sexton — claimed that the Minneapolis-based retailer’s Web site, www.target.com, violates federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities.

Target had filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the laws don’t apply to Web sites because they aren’t physical places of public accommodation. The retailer further claimed that applying California statutes to its Web site, which is accessible to consumers nationwide, would violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In her decision early this month, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel also denied an NFB motion for a preliminary injunction to force Target to promptly make its site accessible to blind people. Patel ruled that sufficient questions were raised in the lawsuit with respect to whether the average blind person can access Target’s Web site.

“While disappointed the lawsuit was not entirely dismissed, Target is pleased the court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction,” the retailer said in a statement to Computerworld.

“We believe our Web site complies with all applicable laws and are committed to vigorously defending this case,” the company said, adding, “We will continue to implement technology that increases the usability of our Web site for all our guests, including those with disabilities.”

Mazen Basrawi, a lawyer at Berkeley, Calif.-based Disability Rights Advocates, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said, “This is groundbreaking. No court has yet ruled directly that the ADA applies to Web sites, which [Patel] has clearly done in this opinion. We hope that it [this case] is going to encourage businesses to include accessibility in their Web development.”

When asked about its policies by Computerworld, The Home Depot Inc. said that it “continually reviews and updates its Web site on the basis of many factors, including customer feedback.” In a statement, the Atlanta-based home improvement retailer said that it “is currently developing enhancements to the site that would further improve the shopping experience for our customers with disabilities.”

In the ruling, Patel said that the ADA statute “applies to the services of a place of public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation. To limit the ADA to discrimination in the provision of services occurring on the premises of a public accommodation would contradict the plain language of the statute.”

In an endnote following the decision, Patel noted that Target’s Web site “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 consumer base, while on the other hand it seeks to escape the requirements of the ADA.”

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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