Dunkin’ Donuts Gets Burned by ADA Decision

Advertising Law

In a plaintiff-friendly decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit sided with a blind man to find that his allegations of website inaccessibility were sufficient to move his Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) suit forward.

Dennis Haynes sued Dunkin’ Donuts, claiming that the site was not compatible with screen reading software he uses because he is blind. This left him unable to locate physical Dunkin’ Donuts store locations or purchase gift cards online, among other website features, he alleged.

The national coffee chain moved to dismiss Haynes’ complaint for lack of standing. A federal court judge in Florida granted the motion, holding that the plaintiff failed to allege a nexus between the barriers to access that he faced on the website and his inability to access goods and services at a physical Dunkin’ Donuts store.

Before the Eleventh Circuit, Haynes contended that the website constitutes “a service, facility, privilege, advantage, benefit and accommodation of” the Dunkin’ Donuts stores, meaning that the ADA requires the site to be accessible to blind people like himself. The defendant disagreed.

The federal appellate panel reversed dismissal.

“The prohibition on discrimination is not limited to tangible barriers that disabled persons face but can extend to intangible barriers as well,” the court wrote, analogizing to a 2002 case where a telephone selection process screened out disabled contestants from competing on a game show. Even though the telephone selection process was an intangible barrier and was not at the game show studio’s place of public accommodation, the court in Rendon v. Valleycrest Productions, Inc. held the plaintiffs stated a claim for relief under the ADA because the inaccessibility of the telephone selection process prevented the plaintiffs from accessing a privilege (the opportunity to be a contestant on the show) that was afforded by the studio.

Similarly, Haynes “has shown a plausible claim for relief under the ADA,” the panel said. “It appears that the website is a service that facilitates the use of Dunkin’ Donuts’ shops, which are places of public accommodation. And the ADA is clear that whatever goods and services Dunkin’ Donuts offers as part of its place of public accommodation, it cannot discriminate against people on the basis of a disability, even if those goods and services are intangible.”

“[T]he alleged inaccessibility of Dunkin’ Donuts’ website denies Haynes access to the services of the shops that are available on Dunkin’ Donuts’ website, which includes the information about store locations and the ability to buy gift cards online,” the court wrote. “The failure to make those services accessible to the blind can be said to exclude, deny, or otherwise treat blind people ‘differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services. …’ And as a result, Haynes has alleged a plausible claim for relief under the ADA.”

To read the decision in Haynes v. Dunkin’ Donuts LLC, click here.

Why it matters: The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion adds to the growing number of courts that have accepted the argument that the ADA applies online, joining a Florida federal court ruling that a supermarket chain could be liable under the statute for operating an inaccessible site and other courts denying defendants’ motions to dismiss ADA actions .