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Castillo v. Jo-Ann Stores, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

February 13, 2018

JO-ANN STORES, LLC, Defendant.


          Kathleen B. Burke United States Magistrate Judge

         This case is before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint (“the Motion”). Doc. 10. The principal question raised by the Motion is when, if ever, a retailer's website that is inaccessible to visually impaired persons may be the subject of a lawsuit by such a person under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.

         The Motion, filed by Defendant Jo-Ann Stores, LLC (“Jo-Ann”), contends that the Complaint filed by Plaintiff Rebecca Castillo (“Castillo”) fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under the ADA for two reasons: (1) the ADA may not be applied to websites at all; and (2) in the alternative, Castillo has failed to allege to the extent required that her inability to access Jo-Ann's website acted as a barrier to her obtaining goods and services at Jo-Ann's physical store locations.[1] Castillo has filed an opposition brief (Doc. 11) and Jo-Ann has replied (Doc. 12). For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that Castillo's Complaint states a claim under Title III of the ADA because it sufficiently alleges a nexus between the website and Jo-Ann's physical locations.

         I. Allegations of the Complaint[2]

         Plaintiff Rebecca Castillo (“Castillo”), a resident of California, is a blind and visually impaired person who requires screen-reading software to read website content. Complaint, Doc. 1, pp. 1, 3, ¶¶1 and 10. Defendant Jo-Ann Stores, LLC (“Jo-Ann”) is a specialty retailer of crafts and fabrics that is headquartered in the Northern District of Ohio. Doc. 1, p. 3, ¶¶11 and 12. Consumers may purchase products from Jo-Ann in person at its brick-and-mortar stores or online through Jo-Ann's website, Id. Castillo alleges that Jo-Ann has failed to make its website accessible to blind or visually impaired individuals and that such failure discriminates against her and other blind or visually impaired individuals in violation of Title III of the ADA and California's Unruh Civil Rights Act (“UCRA”). Doc. 1, pp. 13-16. She seeks a declaratory judgment that Jo-Ann violated both Title III of the ADA and UCRA, preliminary and permanent injunctions prohibiting Jo-Ann from further violations, compensatory damages, and attorney fees and expenses. Doc. 1, p. 17.

         Castillo alleges that screen-reading software such as the software she uses[3] works only if the information on a website is capable of being rendered into meaningful text. If not, the blind or visually-impaired user cannot access the website content that is available to sighted users. Doc. 1, p. 4, ¶18. Currently, screen-reading software is the only method a blind or visually- impaired person can use to independently access the internet, websites and other digital content. Doc. 1, p. 4, ¶19.

         Jo-Ann's website,, offers customers the following: a physical store locator feature; information about sales; offers and discounts (both in-store and online); the ability to browse product selections and to find product information; and the ability to make purchases. Doc. 1, pp. 3, 7-8, ¶¶12, 28. Jo-Ann's website is not capable of being rendered into meaningful text, i.e., a person cannot access the above-cited services on using screen-reading software. Doc. 1, pp. 8-9, ¶37. Castillo alleges that she has attempted unsuccessfully to access using screen reading software. Doc. 1, p. 8, ¶33. She alleges that she was unable to complete an online transaction before the website timed out, and she was unable to access graphics and links on the website. Doc. 1, pp. 9-10, ¶¶37, 38.

         Castillo makes several allegations with respect to the effect of the website's inaccessibility on her ability to access Jo-Ann's brick-and-mortar stores: she alleges that she was unable to use the store locator feature on the website to locate a physical store (Doc. 1, p. 9, ¶37(b)); that the access barriers she has encountered on have deterred her from visiting or locating Jo-Ann's brick and mortar stores (Doc. 1, pp. 8, 10, ¶¶36, 43); and that visually impaired persons cannot learn about in-store and online sales, offers and discounts, or schedule shipment or in-store pickup of purchases (Doc. 1, p. 13, ¶51).

         II. Legal Standard

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (clarifying the plausibility standard articulated in Twombly). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The factual allegations of a pleading must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         The Court must accept all well-pleaded factual allegations as true but need not “accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Id. “Plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). In addition to reviewing the claims set forth in the complaint, a court may also consider exhibits, public records, and items appearing in the record of the case as long as the items are referenced in the complaint and are central to the claims contained therein. Bassett v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 528 F.3d 426, 430 (6th Cir. 2008).

         “Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain a ‘short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 677 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). A defendant is entitled to “fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the ground upon which it rests.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570 (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). While great detail is not required, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see also Whittiker v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Trust Co., 605 F.Supp.2d 914, 924-25 (N.D. Ohio 2009) (citing and relying on Tucker v. Middleburg-Legacy Place, 539 F.3d 545, 550 (6th Cir. 2008) and Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89 (2007) for the proposition that specific facts are not necessary)).

         III. Analysis

         A. Castillo has standing to bring her lawsuit

         To have standing to sue, a plaintiff must allege (1) an injury in fact that is concrete and particularized, actual or imminent; (2) a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of; and (3) that it is likely that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992).

         Jo-Ann argues that Castillo has failed to allege that she suffered an injury in fact necessary to establish standing to bring her lawsuit. Doc. 10, p. 19 (citing Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540 (2016)). Specifically, Jo-Ann contends that, at most, Castillo's Complaint contains allegations of “mere technical” violations of Title III “without alleging that she was actually unable to obtain Defendant's goods and services at its stores” and, therefore, she does not meet the “more rigorous” articulation of “concrete harm” required by Spokeo. Doc. 10, p. 20. Castillo asserts that she has experienced and pleaded an injury in fact caused by Jo-Ann's conduct. Doc. 11, p. 15.

         In Spokeo, the plaintiff alleged that a website operator violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act when it published inaccurate information about him. 136 S.Ct. at 1544. The Supreme Court remanded the case because the Ninth Circuit had not discussed whether the plaintiff's injury was “concrete, ” i.e., whether the publication of the inaccurate information harmed him. Id. at 1550. The Court observed that “the violation of a procedural right granted by statute can be sufficient in some circumstances to constitute injury in fact. In other words, a plaintiff in such a case need not allege any additional harm beyond the one Congress has identified.” Id. at 1549.

         Here, Castillo does not allege only that Jo-Ann committed “mere technical violations” of Title III. She also alleges that she tried unsuccessfully to locate Jo-Ann's brick and mortar stores and access goods and services and information about sales and promotions on Jo-Ann's website. She alleges further that she could not do so because Jo-Ann's website was not accessible to her, a person with a disability; and that she suffered harm as a result. She alleges that the inaccessibility of the website to her and other visually impaired persons constitutes a violation of Title III of the ADA, which provides that no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of their disability in the full and equal enjoyment of goods and services of a place of public accommodation. See, e.g., Doc. 1, pp. 8-10, ¶¶31-40. Castillo thus has alleged an injury in fact that is concrete. Therefore, she has standing to sue.

         B. Castillo has stated a claim cognizable under Title III of the ADA

         Title III of the ADA provides:

No 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 of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.

42 U.S.C. § 12182(a).

         In 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7), the ADA lists 12 “private entities [that] are considered public accommodations for purposes of this subchapter, if the operations of such entities affect commerce, ” including

(E) a bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment;

§ 12181(7)(E).[4]

         The legislative history of the ADA instructs that the twelve categories “should be construed liberally to afford people with disabilities equal access to the wide variety of establishments available to the nondisabled.” PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661, 677 (2001) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The parties dispute whether Jo-Ann's website is a “place of public accommodation” or has a sufficient nexus to a place of public accommodation to be covered under Title III of the ADA. Jo-Ann declares, in the first argument heading in its opening brief, “The Sixth Circuit has held en banc that the ADA does not apply to websites and, even if it did, there is no nexus between Jo-Ann Stores' website and barriers to access in a physical location.” Doc. 10, p. 8. The en banc decision referred to is Parker v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 121 F.3d 1006 (6th Cir. 1997). Jo-Ann also relies on an earlier Sixth Circuit case cited in Parker, Stoutenborough v. National Football League, Inc., 59 F.3d 580 (6th Cir. 1995). Jo-Ann asserts that, in both cases, the Sixth Circuit held that a public accommodation under Title III “is a physical place.” Doc. 10, pp. 9-11. Therefore, Jo-Ann reasons, Title III does not apply to its website (or any website) because a website is not a “physical place.” Id.

         1. The Sixth Circuit's decisions in Parker and Stoutenborough do not foreclose Castillo's ADA claim

         Neither Parker nor Stoutenborough involved a website, as Jo-Ann concedes in its reply brief. Doc. 12, p. 8. Moreover, while Jo-Ann contends that Parker and Stoutenborough are “factually indistinguishable” from this case (Doc. 12, p. 5), [5] the facts set forth in the two Sixth Circuit opinions, which are summarized below, belie that assertion. The holdings in Parker and Stoutenborough are each based on their own facts and, while they provide some guidance, they leave for later decisions the application of the ADA to facts such as those presented in this case, as the majority in Parker expressly acknowledged.

         a. ...

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