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The Discrimination Landmine of Ditching Your Landline

Some businesses, including restaurants, are giving up their landlines. But could this expose them to federal disability discrimination lawsuits?

The pandemic caused massive disruption to many. In the food industry, some restaurant owners made the decision to streamline operations by having the little staff they could still afford focus on food preparation rather than answering calls about reservations or opening hours. While this approach may seem like a convenient way to cut costs, it could create a legal trap for the unwary restauranteur.

A recent New York times article highlighted that some restaurants have ditched a dedicated telephone number and are instead only contactable by email or through a social media app, like Instagram. It seems that younger restaurant owners are perhaps more open to this route, although complete data on this is not yet available. Younger restauranteurs may have grown up in a world where those apps were already part and parcel of daily life and might expect that their clientele is equally comfortable with such apps. 

Federal disability discrimination law under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) can apply to website accessibility as well as to the physical layout of a building. Some readers may recall that Domino’s Pizza was sued several years ago by a blind patron who was unable to use the pizza chain’s website or mobile app order form and relied instead on a telephone number with long wait times. A critical question was whether the chain needed to have brick and mortar stores that were viewed as “places of public accommodation” in order for the ADA to apply to its website.

The Domino’s Pizza case reached the Supreme Court of California, which held that a company does not have to have a brick and mortar store to be subject to the ADA. But a federal court in California held that a brick and mortar store was necessary for the website to be subject to Title III. The Eleventh Circuit, which includes Georgia, recently reached a similar decision. A bill to clarify the ADA’s application to websites throughout the U.S. is currently languishing in Congress. In the absence of a new and clear federal law on this issue, there is a conflict between courts as to what modes of contact retail owners must offer to comply with Title III. 

Regardless of whether your business might fall on the right side of the law at this moment, you could risk reputational damage if a disabled customer is unable to order because of obstacles to access and the customer’s complaints are picked up by the press.

Takeaway: before canceling your business’s landline, speak to an attorney to understand if doing so could expose you to an ADA suit.  

"[E]ven when the restaurant could afford to hire someone to answer the phone, it still did not make sense for the efficiency of the business." - Gregory Ryan, Owner of Bell’s and Bar Le Côte in California.

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leisure and hospitality, ada, restaurant, employment and labor lit, employment, cleek_alisa, de silva_manori, insights