Facebook Has No Duty to Accommodate the Disabled (Including Mentally Disabled), At Least in the Ninth Circuit

So holds Young v. Facebook, Inc. (N.D. Cal. May 17):

Young alleges that she suffers from bipolar disorder and that Facebook unlawfully discriminated against her by failing to provide reasonable customer services to assist individuals with mental disabilities. In order to prevail on a discrimination claim under Title III, a plaintiff must show that: (1) she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) the defendant is a private entity that owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation; and (3) the plaintiff was denied public accommodations by the defendant because of her disability. Under controlling Ninth Circuit authority, “places of public accommodation” under the ADA are limited to actual physical spaces….

Young relies on precedent from other circuits indicating that “public accommodations” are not limited to physical structures. See, e.g., Carparts Distribution Center, Inc. v. Automotive Wholesalers’ Ass’n of New England, 37 F.3d 12, 19 (1st Cir. 1994) (“public accommodations” encompasses more than actual physical structures and included defendant insurance company); Pallozzi v. Allstate Life Ins. Co., 198 F.3d 28 (2d Cir. 2000) (ADA applies to insurance offerings); Doe v. Mutual of Omaha Ins. Co. 179 F.3d 557, 559 (7th Cir. 1999); Rendon v. Valleycrest Productions Ltd., 294 F.3d 1279 (11th Cir. 2002). However, this Court must adhere to Ninth Circuit precedent. See Ky Minh Pham v. Hickman, 262 Fed. Appx. 35, 39 (9th Cir. 2007) (“[I]n the absence of Supreme Court law, [a district court] is bound to follow Ninth Circuit precedent.”); cf. Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind v. Target Corp., 452 F. Supp. 2d 946, 952 (“The Ninth Circuit has declined to join those circuits which have suggested that a `place of public accommodation’ may have a more expansive meaning.”).

Young also contends that Facebook’s services have a sufficient “nexus” to a physical place of public accommodation. In Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind, the plaintiffs alleged that Target’s website was inaccessible to the blind and thus violated the ADA. The court held that plaintiffs stated a claim under the ADA to the extent that they could demonstrate a nexus between the alleged discrimination on the website and at Target’s “brick and mortar” place of public accommodation. Here, Young alleges that Facebook sells its gift cards in various retail stores across the country, and she contends that the alleged discrimination on Facebook’s website deprives her of full and equal access to the goods and services provided by Facebook through physical retail stores. However, Title III provides 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 of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to) or operates a place of public accommodation.” While the retail stores that sell Facebook gift cards may be places of accommodation, Young does not allege that Facebook, Inc. “owns, leases (or leases to) or operates” those stores. Facebook’s internet services thus do not have a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation for which Facebook may be liable under the statute….

The [California] Unruh Civil Rights Act provides that, “[a]ll persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their … disability … are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” A violation of the Unruh Act may be maintained independent of an ADA claim only where a plaintiff pleads “intentional discrimination in public accommodations in violation of the terms of the Act.” The California Supreme Court has concluded that the Act requires allegations of “willful, affirmative misconduct,” and that a plaintiff must allege more than the disparate impact of a facially neutral policy on a particular group. [The Unruh Act is thus broader in what businesses it covers, but only bans intentional discrimination, rather than requiring special accommodation. -EV]

Young claims that Facebook discriminated against her by terminating her account and addressing her concerns with “automated responses” and “[p]regenerated notices” rather than a human customer service system that assists individuals with mental disabilities. However, she does not allege any facts from which intentional discrimination may be inferred. Although she alleges that Facebook’s customer service system was particularly difficult for her to use because of her bipolar disorder, she does not allege that Facebook treated her differently because of her disability, nore does not show that Facebook applies its policies in a way that targets individuals with disabilities. Indeed, the essence of Young’s complaint is that Facebook’s account management and customer service systems treat all users in the same cold, automated way.

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