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Disabling Code: Franchisors Should Ensure Digital Properties Are Accessible

Franchise Distribution Attorney Barry KurtzChair, Franchise & Distribution Practice Group

by Barry Kurtz



Are we still in the dawn of the digital age, or have we moved on to mid-morning yet? Only time, and your company's web site and applications, will tell.

Unfortunately, when it comes to website accessibility, it is still dark as midnight before the dawn for some users. That’s evidenced by the rise in web and app litigation we’re seeing lately – a surge of claims citing Title III of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) violations.

One Forbes contributor opines that California, Florida, Texas and New York are the states most burdened by ADA lawsuits, though the heyday of quick ADA settlements may be throttled with new legislation soon. The writer is referring generally to physical impediments to a disabled person's use of a public facility.

But lately, there has been some litigation concerning online use as well. And this is of particular importance to franchisors who provide online ordering services.

An ADA Defense Can Not Be Built on Bricks Alone

To illustrate, franchisor Five Guys Enterprises LLC recently learned a class action lawsuit against the company will proceed in court. The suit was filed by Lucia Marett, who claims that Five Guys' online ordering system is inaccessible to the blind and visually impaired.

Five Guys attempted to get this suit dismissed by contending that the ADA only applies to brick and mortar locations, not to digital properties, and that the company was in the process of building a compliant site to better accommodate the disabled.

In denying the dismissal, U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest said,

. . . defendant’s website is covered under the ADA, either as its own place of public accommodation or as a result of its close relationship as a service of defendant’s restaurants, which indisputably are public accommodations under the statute. 

Another web accessibility lawsuit actually went to trial, this time in Florida, and the result does not bode well for non-compliant businesses.

In Juan Carlos Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., plaintiff is blind and uses screen reader software that speaks written text, to help him navigate commercial websites. Unfortunately, Gil was not able to use this tech on Winn-Dixie's website.

Gil previously relied on in-store services and acquaintances to help him purchase groceries, refill prescriptions, and use coupons at the chain's physical properties – but a Winn-Dixie television commercial spurred Gil to try these services online. Unfortunately, when Plaintiff visited the site, he found about 90 percent of it was inaccessible to him and could not be read by the software he used.

The grocery chain argued that it never tried to prevent Plaintiff's access to any of its physical stores, and therefore, is not guilty of violating the ADA.

The federal district court disagreed, saying Winn-Dixie's website serves as a digital wormhole of sorts – it is a "gateway to the physical store locations" and therefore, is considered a service of public accommodation. Judge Robert N. Scola clarified,

. . .the ADA does not merely requir[e] physical access to a place of public accommodation. Rather, the ADA requires that disabled individuals be provided ‘full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.

What impact do these lawsuits have on franchisors?

Franchisors' Guide to Digital Compliance

Chances are, if you're successfully running a busy chain of restaurants, hotels, accounting offices or whatever, you are not well versed in the technical aspects of digital properties. The best thing to do is hire the right people to handle this. And by the "right people", we mean web and app developers who are well versed in ADA Compliance.

When engaging a third party to build your websites and ordering systems, here are some basic questions to ask:

1. Will there be "alt tags" or "longdesc tags" added to all images? (Tags are part of hypertext markup language, or html code – these tags will allow a screen reader to describe an image to the user.)

2. Will documents be posted in readable formats for the visually impaired? The standard PDF (Portable Document Format) is generally not readable. Ask your developer to upload restaurant menus, coupons or other documents in html or "rich text format," as well as pdfs.

3. Will users be able to adjust font sizes and colors? Branding is critical to your business and you'll want your font and colors to be used on all marketing collateral. But some visually impaired users will need to see screens in specific color combinations and sizes. You developer will need to design to reflect your brand, but also to allow end-users to adjust to their own readable specifications.

4. Will videos include both audio and captions? If incorporating multi-media, ensure both the visually impaired and the hearing impaired can access the files.

5. Will online forms include descriptive HTML tags? All web users should be able to complete forms without a hitch.

The general rule of thumb for compliance is this: ensure all features available to the customers with full sight and hearing capabilities are also available to those with impairments.

The internet is nearly 50, and both the World Wide Web and the ADA are 27 years old this year – that's actually pretty ancient in terms of cyber shelf life. Don’t ignore web and app development for so long. Code that’s more than three or four years old may not be readable by the latest browsers, let alone tech tools for the disabled. Update regularly.

Barry Kurtz is a Certified Specialist in Franchise & Distribution Law, per the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.

This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.


There's an App for That: Franchisors Fight Slumping Sales, Millenials

Franchise LawyerChair, Franchise & Distribution Practice Group

by Barry Kurtz



How has the gourmet burger gone awry? According to Fox, the better burger business dropped five percent in foot traffic at quick-serve restaurants last year, primarily because consumers are opting to “DIY” their food at home.

But why would customers go through the hassle of firing up the grill when it’s so much easier to belly-up to a counter and place an order? For many, double-digit burgers just cost too much.

Franchisors are taking notice, and making adjustments.

Some are offering premium toppings to compete with the fancier restaurant chains. Others like McDonald’s plan to try using non-frozen beef or offer more “Signature Crafted” items alongside the menu mainstays. Franchises like Wendy’s are sticking to lower price point items, knowing the average consumer just can’t spend $6.00 per day on lunch, according to the article.

Chains in fast food (Burger King), quick-serve (Habit) and full service, sit-down style restaurants (Red Robin) are offering rewards programs to encourage brand loyalty through discounts and freebies. These strategies may help bring back those customers wanting to save money.

But there’s another reason diners are cutting back on eating out: Physically going to restaurants just costs too much in time and stress. Some even characterize it as a “dying tradition” that eats up too much of the work day. Just consider the coordination of schedules, the drive to the restaurant, a hunt for parking, the wait for a table, the wait for service…all of that time adds up. It’s daunting.

And some blame the millennials, who, believe it or not, prefer to cook at home more than their parents did. They also rely more on fast, cheaper meals provided by grocery stores, grocery delivery services, and a new wave of hi-tech, time-saving web based applications for curbside pickup or delivery.

Speed seems to be key here. Denny’s just launched Denny’s on Demand, allowing customers to place orders for pickup or delivery, and pay for those orders. Forget 30 minute pizza delivery. In the land "Down Under", Dominos is working on making and delivering pizzas in 10 minutes or less.

Jack in the Box recently teamed up with DoorDash to deliver curly fries and tacos to home addresses. McDonald’s hopes to drive up profits through UberEats, now available in 100 test markets across the country. Eat24 and Yelp will help web visitors find fast food delivery services within their zip codes.

All in all, apps seem to be the way of the future for restaurants craving more business. Some eateries in the Los Angeles area are claiming anywhere from a 2 to 35 percent increases in sales due to expanded digital assets. But what should franchisors know about the legal ramifications of going hi-tech?

A Franchisor’s Mobilization Plan

Some recent litigation in the dawn of digital gastronomy points the way. Franchisors should ensure they hire the right developers to reduce the risk of litigation. Important aspects to consider include:

Accessibility: This is a big issue, as ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) suits are on the rise. Sweetgreen, Inc., a Washington D.C. based salad chain faced a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of visually-impaired plaintiffs. The app Sweetgreen had developed to allow customers to order online for faster pickup worked great for those who could see. But those customers who were impaired or blind weren’t able to customize their orders as easily, and spent extra time refining their choices at the restaurant. For this group, the app wasn’t time-saving at all.

Intellectual Property Rights: It’s common for developers to borrow code already written, rather than reinvent the wheel every time they build a new site or app. The same applies to graphics and text. However, developers are being targeted more and more often for trademark, copyright or patent infringement. Franchisors should ensure the developers own all elements used in the project, have the licensed rights to use all elements, or that the developers assume all responsibility should IP litigation be initiated.

Privacy: This one’s always an issue, as anything that connects to the internet can be hacked. Just ask Starbucks, which attributes a third of its sales to purchases made through its app. The franchise also claims that less than one percent of its app users have actually been hacked, and that the fault lies with users employing simplistic passwords. Whether those claims are true or not, the hacking is turning out to be a bit of a social media challenge for the coffee franchise.

Third Party Partnerships: Customers are generally unaware when they place an order online through their favorite restaurant’s website that the food will actually be delivered through a third party delivery service. Zoomer is one example, and plaintiffs allege the company violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act and other laws when the delivery service sent customers unauthorized texts after placing food orders with partner restaurants. Granted, it’s the delivery service that is facing the lawsuit – but franchisors should be wary of using any third party service that will annoy customers. Or break the law.

As for the non-digital logistics, remember the practicalities: People who order online generally don’t want to communicate with the restaurant – they want to get in and out quickly, or just have food delivered without fuss. Consider more short-term parking or curb service for pickups; counter space, windows or staff dedicated just to online orders; and whether or not it’s better to employ your own delivery staff or contract out.

Most importantly, make sure the app works, and that it works well – there’s no point in developing an app that doesn’t allow customers to order, customize selections, and pay. Useless apps without these features tend to get slammed in reviews. And the critics are harsh, as seen in the example to the right.

Barry Kurtz is a State Bar of California Certified Specialist in Franchise & Distribution Law.

This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.


Wrongful Termination & Disability Discrimination: Sarkisian Goes Head to Head With USC

Wage and Hour DefenseEmployment Litigation Defense



by Sue M. Bendavid



Employment Discrimination Defesne


After a much publicized struggle with alcoholism and public firing by the University of Southern California, former head coach for the football team, Steve Sarkisian, has filed a lawsuit against the university.

According to several media outlets, one of the incidents that led to Sarkisian’s termination was the coach’s inability to speak properly at a USC pep rally in August.

The coach was slurring, and used an expletive while speaking onstage. In contrast, Sarkisian claims he had a few beers and took some anti-anxiety medication before the event. Allegedly, USC’s athletic director, Pat Haden, demanded Sarkisian sign a letter requiring the coach apologize to the team and the media, and to obtain counseling with a school therapist.

Sarkisian’s lawsuit against USC asserts claims for, among other things, breach of contract, disability discrimination, medical confidentiality violations, and wrongful termination. Sarkisian is seeking $12.6 million in contract damages as well as additional sums for “extreme mental anguish as a result of not only his wrongful termination, but also the manner in which he was terminated and the statements made about that termination by USC.”

The complaint also states that:

“Instead of supporting its Head Coach, Steve Sarkisian, when he needed its help the most, USC kicked him to the curb. Instead of honoring the contract it made with Steve Sarkisian, USC kicked him to the curb.”

Sarkisian and his attorneys further allege that Haden repeatedly and derisively said “Unbelievable” during a phone call in which Sarkisian asked for time off to get help for alcohol addiction, placed the coach on indefinite leave, and subsequently wrongfully terminated him.

Both state and federal law provide protections for disabled employees. California’s law is the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  The federal law is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Both FEHA and the ADA recognize that alcoholism is a form of disability. As noted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers must make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees if the accommodation will not result in an undue hardship on the employer.

Also, under California Labor Code Sections 1025-1028, certain employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who ask for time off to enter rehab. And, the employer must maintain the employees’ privacy.

What Should Employers Do To Keep Workplaces Running Safely and Efficiently?

Lawyer for EmployerEmployers should remember that alcoholism is a disease recognized by the American Medical Association, and that this disease may entitle an employee to take time off from work. Not only may employees have leave rights under the ADA and FEHA, but also under other leave laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and the California Family Rights Act (for employers with more than 50 employees).

Employers who must terminate an alcoholic should do so with caution. They should consider all of the circumstances of the employee, including work history, performance records and other factors. Documentation of misconduct is key to helping prove that the termination was due to performance and not to a disability.

Employers should also establish policies and ensure all employees are aware of such policies prohibiting the use of alcohol or controlled substances while working.


Sue M. Bendavid is the Chair of the Employment Practice Group at our firm. Contact her by phone: 818.907.3220, or by email:

This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

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