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Nat'l Fedn. of the Blind v. Scribd Inc.

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 19, 2015

NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND, on behalf of its members and itself, and HEIDI VIENS, Plaintiffs,
v.
SCRIBD INC., Defendant

For National Federation of the Blind, on behalf of its members and itself, Heidi Viens, Plaintiffs: Daniel F. Goldstein, Esq., Gregory P. Care, Esq., Haben Girma, Esq., Rebecca J. Rodgers, Esq., PRO HAC VICE, Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP, Baltimore, MD; Emily J. Joselson, Esq., Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP, Middlebury, VT; James T. DeWeese, Esq., Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP, Burlington, VT; Laurence Paradis, Esq., PRO HAC VICE, Disability Rights Advocates, Berkley, CA.

For Scribd, Inc., Defendant: Gary F. Karnedy, Primmer Piper Eggleston & Cramer PC, Burlington, VT; Tonia M. Ouellette Klausner, Esq., PRO HAC VICE, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, P.C., New York, NY.

Page 566

Opinion and Order

William K. Sessions, III, District Judge.

Plaintiffs National Federation of the Blind (" NFB" ) and Heidi Viens, a member of NFB residing in Colchester, Vermont, brought this suit against Scribd, Inc. (" Scribd" ). The Plaintiffs' Complaint alleges

Page 567

that Scribd has violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA" ), 42 U.S.C. § 12182, because its website and mobile applications (" apps" ) are inaccessible to the blind.

Scribd has moved to dismiss the Complaint with prejudice pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. ECF No. 13. Scribd argues that the Plaintiffs have not alleged facts demonstrating that it owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation because the ADA does not apply to website operators whose goods or services are not made available at a physical location open to the public. The Court disagrees. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Scribd's motion to dismiss.

I. Factual Background

According to the Complaint, Scribd is a California-based digital library that operates reading subscription services on its website and on apps for mobile phones and tablets. Scribd's customers pay a monthly fee to gain access to its collection of over forty million titles, including e-books, academic papers, legal filings, and other user-uploaded digital documents.

Scribd's digital software program is accessed over the Internet. The Plaintiffs contend that Scribd's website and apps are inaccessible to the blind because they use an exclusively visual interface and lack any non-visual means of operation. Blind persons generally use screen reader software to convert graphical information found on websites and apps into audio or Braille formats, depending on the user's preference. According to the Plaintiffs, because Scribd's website and apps are not programmed to be accessible through such software, Scribd is denying blind persons access to all of the services, privileges, advantages, and accommodations that Scribd offers and is excluding them from accessing information critical to their education, employment, and community integration.

Scribd contends that it does not operate any physical location open to the public, nor does the Complaint include such an allegation.

II. Legal Standard

To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 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.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). A court evaluating a motion to dismiss must accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences from those facts in favor of the non-moving party. McCarthy v. Dun & Bradstreet Corp., 482 F.3d 184, 191 (2d Cir. 2007). This assumption of truth does not apply to legal conclusions. Davis v. Vermont, Dep't of Corrections, 868 F.Supp.2d 313, 321 (D. Vt. 2012)

III. Discussion

To state a claim under Title III, a plaintiff must allege (1) that she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA, (2) that the defendant owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation, and (3) that the defendant discriminated against her by denying her a full and equal opportunity to enjoy the services the defendant provides. Camarillo v. Carrols Corp., 518 F.3d 153, 156 (2d Cir. 2008). Scribd argues that the Plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged that it owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation.

The question at the heart of Scribd's motion is ultimately one of statutory construction. As in all such cases, the Court must first determine whether the

Page 568

language at issue has " 'a plain and unambiguous meaning with regard to the particular dispute in the case.'" United States v. Am. Soc'y of Composers, Authors, Publishers, 627 F.3d 64, 72 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Barnhart v. Sigmon Coal Co., 534 U.S. 438, 450, 122 S.Ct. 941, 151 L.Ed.2d 908 (2002)). If a court can ascertain the plain meaning of the statutory text by examining the context of the statute as a whole, it need not proceed any further, but if the text's meaning is ambiguous then a court may consult other sources, including the statute's legislative history. Louis Vuitton Malletier S.A. v. LY USA, Inc., 676 F.3d 83, 108 (2d Cir. 2012). When interpreting an ambiguous provision a court focuses on the " broader context and primary purpose of the statute." Serv. Employees Int'l, Inc. v. Dir., Office of Workers Comp. Program, 595 F.3d 447, 453 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation and citation omitted). The Second Circuit has " long held" that where a statute is ambiguous, " it should be interpreted in a way that avoids absurd results." Frank G. v. Bd. of Educ. of Hyde Park, 459 F.3d 356, 368 (2d Cir. 2006) (internal quotation omitted and citation omitted).

A. The Text of the ADA is Ambiguous

The general rule of Title III states 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." 42 U.S.C. § 12182. The statute defines " public accommodation" as follows:

The following entities are considered public accommodations for purposes of this subchapter if the entities affect commerce--
A) an inn, hotel, motel, or other place of lodging, except for an establishment located within a building that contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and that is actually occupied by the proprietor of such establishment as the residence of such proprietor;
(B) a restaurant, bar, or other establishment serving food or drink;
(C) a motion picture house, theater, concert hall, stadium, or other place of ...

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