Massachusetts Federal Court Rules That The ADA Applies To Online-Only Business As A 'Place Of Public Accommodation'

On June 19, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held, in National Association for the Deaf, et al. v. Netflix, Inc., that Netflix's online video-streaming service, known as "Watch Instantly," qualified under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") as a "place of public accommodation" obligated not to discriminate against the disabled. This decision extends an existing circuit split regarding the ADA's applicability to internet-based businesses, and should prompt all companies and organizations providing services via the Internet or selling goods online to consider carefully whether and to what extent their websites are sufficiently accessible to those with visual and auditory disabilities.


Under the ADA, "place[s] of public accommodation" must not discriminate against an individual on the basis of disability. This statutory dictate includes the requirement that qualifying businesses "take such steps as may be necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services."

In the Netflix case, the National Association for the Deaf argued that Netflix had violated this provision of the ADA by failing to provide closed captioning for all of its Watch Instantly content. Netflix moved to dismiss the complaint, in part, on the ground that an online-only service is not a place of public accommodation within the meaning of the ADA. Netflix additionally argued that the term "place of public accommodation" could not be extended to reach the private residences where customers access its Watch Instantly content.

The Court's Decision

The court rejected Netflix's arguments, relying upon First Circuit precedent from the mid-1990s which had applied the ADA to businesses that take orders via telephone or by mail. Here, the court interpreted the ADA to apply to web-based businesses, reasoning that "in a society in which business is increasingly conducted online, excluding businesses that sell services through the Internet from the ADA would run afoul of the purposes of the ADA," leaving in place barriers that would prevent individuals with disabilities from participating fully in opportunities otherwise generally available to the public.

The court likewise found "unpersuasive" Netflix's contention that a service providing video-streaming to private residences does not implicate...

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