Pictured: International Symbol of Access in white over a blue background Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

By Rohan Parekh

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter famously sings, “[I] don’t know much about fighting, but I, I know I will fight for you,” in her hit song “1+1.”[1] But will she fight for the 8.1 million visually impaired individuals in the United States, two million of whom are blind, who are being denied access to her website Beyonce.com?[2]

Mary Conner, a blind woman who claims Beyonce.com violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and New York State law, presented Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment LLC with a class action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York.[3] Conner is an avid follower of Beyoncé’s music and hopes to one day attend a live concert, but she argues that she is unable to independently navigate the Beyonce.com website to purchase merchandise and learn more about the artist.[4] Based on prior case law broadly interpreting the ADA to cover the Internet and current website accessibility standards, Parkwood Entertainment should settle with Conner and those similarly situated.[5]  The settlement should also include provisions regarding making the website accessible and usable to blind and visually impaired Beyoncé fans who use assistive technology, such as screen reader software to read webpages.[6] 

Title III of the ADA prohibits individuals from being discriminated against on the basis of a disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services of any place of public accommodation.[7] The statute describes a potential violator as any person who owns or operates a place of public accommodation.[8] In a case the National Federation of the Blind brought against Target pertaining to Target.com, the Northern District of California held that the ADA applies to physical and electronic spaces, which include websites like Target.com.[9] Furthermore, the court found that limiting the ADA to discrimination in the offering of services on the premises of a public accommodation would be inconsistent with the plain meaning of the statute.[10]

Although claims can be brought under the ADA based on unequal access to a service of a place of public accommodation, some courts have found that a plaintiff must show there is a nexus between the denied service and the place of public accommodation.[11]  For example, in Stoutenborough v. National Football League, the Sixth Circuit dismissed a claim under Title III because the defendant’s service, the live showing of a football game, was not offered by the place of public accommodation, the football stadium.[12]

A court following a narrow reading of the ADA may find that Beyonce.com is an Internet website offering music and information services about a superstar performer, and therefore, there is no equivalent place of public accommodation that offers the services.[13] In the digital age, on demand video services like Netflix and social media websites like Facebook have been able to avoid legal compliance under the ADA, since courts are split on interpretation of the ADA to electronic spaces.[14] However, the legislative history of the ADA suggests that services and accommodations should be responsive to changes in technology, such that Internet services are compatible with screen reader software.[15] In addition, sections of the ADA explaining discrimination and reasonable modifications underlie the aims of the ADA and secure broader protections for individuals with disabilities.[16]

As a matter of equality and diversity inclusion initiatives, website operators may opt to offer full and equal availability to their services based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a set of technical standards that make web content more accessible to people with disabilities.[17] In fact, one court has incorporated the WCAG standards to remedy discrimination under the ADA and provide visually impaired consumers the ability to access a website, allowing the full and equal enjoyment of its services.[18] For now, compliance with these guidelines does not seem to be a court mandated remedy; they are, for now, simply guidelines. 

To avoid the costs of litigation and garner a positive association with the Beyoncé brand, it is likely Parkwood Entertainment will enter into a settlement which could include providing reasonable access to its web services to a diverse population of listeners. However, this question of whether a website denying services and goods to disabled individuals is considered a place of public accommodation under the ADA will continue to arise until it is resolved.   

[1] See Beyoncé, 1+1 (Columbia Records 2011). 

[2] See Complaint at 3, Mary Conner v. Parkwood Entertainment LLC, No. 1:19-cv-00053 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 3, 2019).  

[3] See Complaint at 19, 21, 24 (stating defendants are in violation of New York State Human Rights Law and New York State Civil Rights Law); Ashley Cullins, Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment Sued Over Website Accessibility, The Hollywood Reporter (Jan. 3, 2019), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/beyonces-parkwood-entertainment-sued-1172909.

[4] See Complaint at 10; see also Cullins, supra note 3 (explaining that website accessibility requires alternative text to be coded with pictures so that a screen reader can speak the alternative text and drop-down menus, as well as that navigation links should be accessible for visually impaired and blind users). 

[5] See Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind v. Target Corp., 452 F. Supp. 2d 946, 955 (N.D. Cal. 2006); see also Nat’l Ass’n of the Deaf v. Netflix, Inc., 869 F. Supp. 2d 196, 200 (D. Mass. 2012); Web Accessibility Initiative, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Overview, World Wide Web Consortium,  https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/ (last visited Feb. 5, 2019). 

[6] See Complaint at 11 (seeking compensatory damages and injunctive relief). 

[7] See 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a) (stating that “[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place or public accommodations by any person who owns, leases or operates a place of public accommodation”).  

[8]  See id.

[9] See Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind, 452 F. Supp. 2d at 955; see also Nat’l Ass’n of the Deaf, 869 F. Supp. 2d at 200 (finding that the ADA covers both transactions over the phone and to services on the Internet).

[10] See Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind, 452 F. Supp. 2d at 953 (holding that the ADA applies to the services of a place of public accommodation, not only the services ina place of public accommodation).   

[11] See Rendon v. Valleycrest Prod. Ltd., 294 F.3d 1279, 1284-85 (11th Cir. 2002) (holding that by using a discriminatory process for choosing contestants on the television show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” defendant denied disabled persons equal enjoyment of competing at the studio, which was the place of public accommodation); Weyer v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 198 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2000) (finding that when plaintiff sued an insurance company for discriminating against people with psychiatric disabilities, there was no nexus between the lack of benefits and the services offered by the insurance company at its office).

[12] See Stoutenborough v. Nat’l Football League, 59 F.3d 580, 583-84 (6th Cir. 1995). 

[13] See Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind, 452 F. Supp. 2d at 952 (stating that plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that a website was a physical place, disagreeing with the Ninth Circuit holding that the examples of places the ADA include under 42 U.S.C. § 1218(7)(A)-(L) are motion picture houses, auditoriums, and restaurants). 

[14] See Huzar v. Groupon, Inc., 2018 U.S. Dist. Lexis 126653, at *1, *9 (N.D. Ill. July, 30 2018) (finding that online ticket and deal seller for hotels and stadiums is not operated by these businesses, so it is therefore not a place of public accommodation); Cullen v. Netflix, Inc., 880 F. Supp. 2d 1017, 1023-24 (N.D. Cal. 2012) (holding that websites are not places of public accommodation); Young v. Facebook, Inc., 790 F. Supp. 2d 1110, 1114-16 (N.D. Cal. 2011) (explaining that a website is not a physical place, and plaintiff failed to allege a nexus between the website and a place of public accommodation). But see Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind v. Scribd Inc., 97 F. Supp. 3d 565, 572 (D. Vt. 2015) (holding that interpreting the ADA to apply only to physical places would lead to absurd results and arbitrary treatment). 

[15] See Nat’l Fed’n Of the Blind, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 573-75 (citing H.R. Rep. No.101-485(II), at 108 (1990)) (describing that the Committee Reports during the passage of the ADA contemplated rapid technological change in terms of access to information services, which Congress predicted could cause barriers to disabled people).   

[16] See 42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(1)(A)(i-iii) (listing activities that are determined to be discriminatory); 42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(ii-iv) (requiring auxiliary aides to ensure effective communication with disabled individuals and the removal of communications barriers). 

[17] See World Wide Web Consortium, supra note 5 (naming standards such as adding invisible alt text to graphics and headings to allow blind individuals to easily access websites). 

[18] See Gil v. Winn-Dixie Store Inc., 257 F. Supp. 1340, 1350 (S.D. Fla. 2017) (finding that compliance under the WCAG would not be unduly burdensome). 

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