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A federal judge in Miami has short-circuited a novel legal effort to apply the Americans with Disabilities Act’s anti-discrimination provisions to business Internet sites. U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Seitz dismissed with prejudice a lawsuit filed by the Miami Beach-based disability group Access Now that alleged that Southwest Airlines’ online reservation service violated the ADA by not accommodating blind people. Access Now, a nonprofit group that has filed hundreds of lawsuits alleging ADA violations, sued Southwest in U.S. District Court in June. It claimed that the Web site of the Dallas-based airline was incompatible with screen-reading software, which enables the blind to use the Internet. The aim of the lawsuit was to have the court order Southwest to make its site compatible with that software. Access Now will get another shot at the issue in U.S. District Court in Miami. In July, the group also filed suit against Dallas-based American Airlines, making the same claim. That case is pending before federal Judge Adalberto Jordan. These are the first cases under this legal theory filed in the courts of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Among the statutorily created rights embodied within the ADA is Title III’s prohibition against discrimination in places of public accommodation. The issue in this case was whether an Internet site is a “public accommodation” under Title III of the ADA. In her 12-page ruling handed down Friday, Judge Seitz, who was appointed by President Clinton in 1998, held that a Web site is not a place of public accommodation. “[T]o fall within the scope of the ADA as presently drafted, a public accommodation must be a physical, concrete structure,” she wrote. “To expand the ADA to cover ‘virtual’ spaces would be to create new rights without well-defined standards.” The ADA was enacted by Congress in 1990 when the Internet was in its infancy. Seitz wrote that if Access Now wants the ADA to apply to the Internet, it should lobby Congress to amend the law rather than file a lawsuit. “It is the role of Congress, and not this court, to specifically expand the ADA’s definition of ‘public accommodation’ beyond physical, concrete places of public accommodation, to include ‘virtual’ places of public accommodation,” she wrote. An Access Now official responded to the ruling by contending that the ADA was written broadly enough to include virtual spaces. It plans to appeal the decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “We believe that the marketplace is the marketplace, whether it is the virtual or real world,” said Phyllis F. Resnick, vice president and executive director of Access Now. “And whether Congress envisioned the Internet specifically when it passed the ADA, it envisioned the ADA to be elastic enough to encompass new technology.” The disability group was represented by Steven R. Reininger and Howard R. Behar, partners at Rasco, Reininger, Perez & Esquenazi in Coral Gables, Fla. Southwest was represented in the case by K. Renee Schimkat, a partner at Carlton Fields in Miami. Schimkat was out of town and unavailable for comment. Southwest could not be reached by deadline. Despite ruling in Southwest’s favor, Seitz chided the airline for not making its Web site compatible with screen-reading software for the blind. According to court filings in the case, 1.5 million visually impaired Americans use the Internet. Southwest derives approximately 46 percent of its revenue from online bookings on its Web site. Seitz wrote: “It is especially surprising that Southwest, a company which prides itself on its customer relations, has not voluntarily seized the opportunity to employ all available technologies to expand accessibility to its Web site for visually impaired customers who would be an added source of revenue.”

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