On April 3, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights continued its guidance on how institutions can implement distance learning while complying with federal civil rights laws. This guidance is timely because distance learning due to COVID-19 is redefining how most educational institutions operate. When all levels of academic institutions had to close their doors due to stay-at-home orders, many of them opened the proverbial window by turning to online education. Despite its increasing popularity over the past decade or so, distance learning remains an emerging landscape for many institutions as they navigate purchasing/installing new technology, implementing new methods of teaching, and ensuring connectivity with students. OCR’s guidance provides a roadmap to this new territory.
As with all crises, this pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation that is forcing schools to quickly implement new policies and practices, often operating on limited information and without the usual procedural safeguards and vetting. Such an environment creates a risk of the unintended consequences of those new policies/procedures being overlooked, resulting in potentially discriminatory effects to students.
On October 7, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an order denying certiorari in Domino’s Pizza, LLC v. Robles, a case that would have required the Supreme Court to determine the application of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to websites and mobile applications. The Supreme Court’s order means a Ninth Circuit decision applying Title III to websites and mobile apps will stand, even in the absence of Department of Justice-promulgated regulations outlining applicable compliance standards.
On September 1, 2016, Guillermo Robles, who is visually impaired, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. He alleged that Domino’s website and mobile app were incompatible with his chosen screen-reading software, and thus violated Title III of the ADA, among other statutes. Domino’s moved for summary judgment, in part on the basis that Title III of the ADA does not extend to its website or mobile app. The District Court found that Title III did apply to Domino’s website and app, but granted summary judgment on the grounds that imposing liability on Domino’s without clear standards for satisfying Title III obligations would violate the company’s due process rights. Robles then appealed.