Is the Internet a place? Apparently, no one’s entirely sure, but one federal appeals court has asked the California Supreme Court to figure it out in the context of a lawsuit that is pending against Cable News Network.
[OK, we know that this topic doesn’t directly have anything to do with the workplace but, as you’ll see in a moment, it involves accommodations for folks with disabilities, so it could easily have some spillover into several areas.]
The underlying legal dispute is pretty straightforward. The Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD) filed a class action lawsuit against CNN for not closed-captioning all of its online videos. That failure, GLAD says, limits access to those materials by viewers who are hearing-impaired and amounts to a violation of California Disabled Persons Act.
The DPA says, among other things, that “[i]ndividuals with disabilities shall be entitled to full and equal access, as other members of the general public, to accommodations, advantages, facilities … and privileges of … places of public accommodation … and other places to which the general public is invited.” According to GLAD, the Internet is a “place of public accommodation.” The pivotal issue in the lawsuit, therefore, is whether DPA’s reference to “places of public accommodation” includes websites. In other words, are non-physical places still places for purposes of requiring accommodations for the disabled?
Courts that have addressed the issue are fairly divided, so the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s request for assistance is not necessarily surprising. (And, after all, it is a California statute that’s causing the furor, so why not enlist that state’s highest court to untangle the mess?)
The decision will likely be closely watched by everyone from employers to online retailers to any number of others. Employers already know that the EEOC and courts often look to sources other than the ADAAA for guidance when deciding matters involving requests for reasonable accommodations, and the Internet’s vital role in shaping matters of public importance suggests that this case has the potential to be significant.