New York Federal Court Finds Personal Jurisdiction over Vanderbilt University in ADA Website Accessibility Case
On December 4, 2019, a New York Federal Court found it had personal jurisdiction over Vanderbilt University in an ADA Website Accessibility Case.
Plaintiff Jason Camacho filed an ADA website accessibility lawsuit alleging that a website operated by Vanderbilt University failed to comply with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12181-12189 (the “ADA”); the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 290 to 297 (the “NYSHRL”); the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 701 to 796; and the New York City Human Rights Law, N.Y.C. Admin. Code §§ 8-101 to 8-131 (the “NYCHRL”), because the website denies equal access to visually impaired customers.
In this ADA website accessibility case, Plaintiff is a visually impaired and legally blind individual who resides in Brooklyn, New York and alleged that he was interested in attending a four-year college. Vanderbilt is a university that is incorporated in the state of Tennessee, with its principal place of business and campus in Nashville, Tennessee and has no offices or property in New York, nor does it hold any physical classes or seminars in New York. Vanderbilt operates the website www.vanderbilt.edu.
Vanderbilt filed a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, and for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In response, Plaintiff claimed that Vanderbilt engaged in three types of transactions that subject it to the Court’s jurisdiction under New York’s Long Arm Statute. The Court rejected two of Plaintiff’s three personal jurisdiction arguments: (1) that Vanderbilt receives tuition payments from students who come from New York and (2) that Vanderbilt participates in college recruiting events to recruit applicants from New York. However, the Court agreed with Plaintiff’s third argument: that Vanderbilt’s website constituted a transaction that exposes Vanderbilt to jurisdiction in the state of New York. See the full ADA Website Accessibility Opinion
The Court explained that a website’s degree of interactivity exists on a spectrum and analyzed the website within a three-part interactivity spectrum:
- At one end of the spectrum are passive websites, which do not confer jurisdiction. These websites generally only provide information about services for sale and contact information for the seller, without any ability to directly purchase the services through the website.
- The middle ground of the spectrum are cases in which the defendant maintains an interactive web site which permits the exchange of information between users in another state and the defendant, which depending on the level and nature of the exchange may be a basis for jurisdiction.
- On the other end are fully interactive websites, which knowingly transmit goods or services to users in other states, and are sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction.
When a website falls in the middle of the interactivity spectrum, the personal jurisdiction inquiry requires closer evaluation of its contacts with New York residents to determine if Vanderbilt engaged in purposeful activity, i.e., purposefully targeted New Yorkers with its website.
The Court analyzed Plaintiff’s complaint:
“The issue of whether Plaintiff has adequately pleaded facts suggesting that Defendant targeted New York residents through the Website must be decided on a razor-thin margin.” The Second Amended Complaint contains no explicit allegation that portions of the Website are targeted specifically at New York residents, as opposed to the general population. Nor does it incorporate any clear contention that Defendant encouraged individuals at recruiting events in New York to visit its website. Instead, the Second Amended Complaint includes only one sentence relevant to whether the Website was targeted at New York, in the form of a grammatically-confused assertion: “The Defendant’s actions of marketing and soliciting prospective students in New York State by various means including, but not limited to, exhibiting at college fairs in New York City and utilizing their website in conjunction therewith[.]”
Ultimately, the Court stated that because it is bound to read Plaintiff’s jurisdictional allegations “in the light most favorable to the plaintiff” and to resolve doubts in “the plaintiff’s favor,” it found that Plaintiff intended to plead that Vanderbilt targets its website at New Yorkers by using the website to solicit applications during college fairs held in New York State. Coupling this allegation with the alleged interactivity of the Website, the Court concluded that New York’s long-arm statute was satisfied.
This case is noteworthy because it shows the importance of examining all allegations in an ADA website accessibility complaint and evaluating whether jurisdiction has been adequately pled. While this is a New York ADA website accessibility case, it is worth consideration in other jurisdictions in similar cases.