Accessibility Lawsuit Against Sweetgreen

Image Description: Illustration of Thomas and Ken at a desk with A11y Insights. Thomas has a laptop in front of him. A city skyline is in the distance behind them. The news window shows all kinds of salads.

The Equal Entry team has eaten at Sweetgreen many times. The team appreciates the fast-casual chain’s varied and unique healthy salads. Recently, Ali Colak has filed a lawsuit against Sweetgreen, Inc. stating the company’s website is not accessible and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The filing also indicates the company does not comply with the New York City Human Rights Law under 42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(ii)-(iii) paragraph 74. “It shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice for any person who is the owner, franchisor, franchisee, lessor, lessee, proprietor, manager, superintendent, agent, or employee of any place or provider of public accommodation,  because of . . . disability . . . to refuse, withhold from or deny to such person, any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges thereof.”

The plaintiff explains the website contains many hurdles. It doesn’t have proper image descriptions, it has incorrectly formatted lists and improperly programmed pop-ups. All of these interfere with screen reader technologies.

It turns out this isn’t the first time Sweetgreen has been sued for accessibility problems. In 2016, two blind plaintiffs filed a lawsuit saying Sweetgreen’s online ordering system and mobile app were not accessible. They reached a settlement with Sweetgreen. The plaintiffs indicate the website contained barriers that prevented them from enjoying equitable access.

Even after settling a previous ADA filing, the company was open to a new one because they did not ensure their products and services remained accessible. Accessibility isn’t something you fix one time. It needs to be checked every time the company makes updates. Unfortunately, many companies have been sued for accessibility problems multiple times.

What You Need to Know About the Sweetgreen Lawsuit and Its History

Thomas Logan: Hello, everyone. This is Thomas Logan from Equal Entry, and I’m here today with Ken Nakata from Converge Accessibility for A11yInsight. And today we’re going to talk about another topic, how historical accessibility decisions don’t necessarily mean changes in the future. And we’re going to be looking at a case from the past against a company called Sweetgreen.

It’s a restaurant that allows you to purchase and customize nice, fresh, organic salads. And they have a lawsuit against them back in 2016 from two plaintiffs, both of whom were blind, that filed informal complaints over being able to access the website for accessibility. So they wanted to be able to get information from the website and basically have one of these salads.

That was from 2016 when this started, but there was a new case recently in 2023 it began. And I think today’s topic, we want to take a look at how the same defendant in this case, Sweetgreen can actually be sued multiple times for not being accessible. So, let’s start off with a question for you, Ken.

What does a settlement mean? And back in the original case for Sweetgreen, what did it mean when they made a settlement?

What Does a Settlement Mean?

Ken Nakata: That’s a great question, Thomas. We haven’t really discussed that much about how a lawsuit can end. One way is that the whole case could go to trial and the Judge could end up making a decision for what the parties have to do.

But often enough, cases end up settling short of that, even after they may start a trial, or before they start a trial. And a settlement agreement is where the parties get together privately and they come up with an agreement between them. And they go to the judge and they say, “Your Honor, we’ve independently settled this case. Let’s just dismiss it.”

And so, they write up a motion to the judge saying, “We’ve privately settled this case,” and the case gets dismissed with prejudice. So the same plaintiff can’t just go back and sue them immediately again. And the case is over.

Thomas Logan: Is the information from the settlement agreement available for us to read and learn from?

Ken Nakata: Usually not. In most cases, the parties want to keep that information private, so they tend not to disclose the settlement publicly.

Thomas Logan: Is there anything that could have been done differently by Sweetgreen instead of a settlement agreement?

Ken Nakata: They could have also settled the case through something called a consent decree.

And that’s basically the same thing as a settlement agreement, except it’s reviewed by the judge, reviewed for fairness, and then it’s ultimately signed by the judge.

What Are Consent Decrees?

Thomas Logan: And in that case, what would that mean if the judge agreed to the consent decree?

Ken Nakata: Even though there isn’t much difference between a consent decree and a settlement agreement in form because one is just signed by the judge. A consent decree potentially has a lot farther reaching effects because a consent decree can bar subsequent litigation through a concept that we call res judicata.

Well, they didn’t enter into a consent decree in this case. So, the new case, is basically an entirely new case against Sweetgreens. And as I’m looking over the complaint, it seems as though the allegations aren’t really all that different from the first one, but it hinges around this idea of the plaintiff’s inability to obtain location information about Sweetgreen’s restaurants and getting complete menu information from their website.

But, Thomas, you’ve taken a look at that complaint and the specific allegations that are in the complaint. What do you think?

Demo of Sweetgreen Website Based on the Allegations

Thomas Logan: Here I am on the Sweetgreen website, and the first allegation was around being able to explore the locations. And the second allegation was around being able to explore the menu.

The first allegation I want to address is just the ability to actually navigate to the “OUR MENU” or the location settings. So here I am running VoiceOver on the Mac. As I tab through the site at the very top of the site. I have a link to “OUR MENU.” and as I continue tabbing, I also have a link to “LOCATIONS.”

So, just as a starting point, to me, with the screen reader, I’m able to both find the menu and the locations from the homepage. But now let’s go into the “LOCATIONS.”

The site says find the greens near you. Now, I will admit that this website design is a little difficult to use, but I would say it’s difficult to use for everyone. So when you go to “LOCATIONS,” the first part of the website is to request for Sweetgreens to be in your neighborhood. But as you continue navigating down the webpage, you get to a list of all their locations.

And we can see that they have locations in California, Illinois, and this case is brought in New York. So if I keep navigating through this list of items, I’m actually going to get to, going through Illinois, I’m eventually going to get to New York City, or New York. And here we can see that, the locations are available.

So, the website itself has the locations listed, they are hyperlinks. If I pull up a list of links on the website, I’m going to see all of these, addresses. Now, I agree, it’s difficult to use, because these are under headings. And when I look at the headings of the website, there are no headings for the locations such as New York, Georgia, Washington or Wisconsin.

To me this is a clear violation in the sense that we have visual headings, we see bolded text, and we see underneath the bolded text a list of locations in that area. So there should be headings to help someone who’s blind using a screen reader find the content. However, just from my opinion, the fact that the links are available in the website means that there is a way to navigate to and get this information.

So as far as the level of the injury, to me, because I’m able to get to all of the different locations, it’s not as severe as if I couldn’t find out the locations at all on the website. And now I want to show the menu.

So here we are on the menu. This is the different types of products that are available from Sweetgreen. You can skip down into the content, start reading the content. Okay, the skip to navigation link doesn’t work, so they should fix that. But here we are on “heading level 1, Fresh, plant-forward, earth-friendly food,” “heading level 2, Protein Plates.”

We can find out that we’re in the “Protein Plates” section. You can now read that there’s four items that are protein plates. Yes, it’s annoying to hear, it’s “article, 1 of 4.” But now I can hear that it’s a “BBQ Salmon, image.” Hearing “list 1 item,” it’s annoying. Hearing “list 1 item, level 2,” it’s annoying.

But then I can also hear “ONLINE ONLY.” So the text online only is available for this particular product. I keep reading. Now I get to “heading level 2, BBQ SALMON.” I can find out the ingredients. So, “Miso glazed salmon, warm roasted sweet potatoes, veg slaw, wild rice (x2), honey BBQ sauce, and lime squeeze.”

Keep reading. I can find out there’s a list of 6 items. It’s 790 calories, it’s 33 grams of protein, 24 grams of sugar, 99 grams of carbs, 26 grams of fat, and 1.41 kilograms of CO2E. So, all the information that’s displayed in the menu is available to the screen reader. So, in my opinion, again, it would be nice to have headings that are more navigable.

So, when I pull up the list of headings on this particular webpage, I would love to see that I could navigate to protein plates and then find “heading level 3, BBQ SALMON,” “heading level 3, MISO GLAZED SALMON,” “heading level 3, HOT HONEY CHICKEN,” and “heading level 3, CHICKEN FAJITA.”

If it did work that way, it would be much easier for a person using a screen reader to find out where the protein plates are and then find out the items underneath the protein plates or find out where the bowls are or find out where the salads are.

The heading structure is not ideal. But again, same point, from my perspective, this is all things that need to be discussed in our accessibility community. Is this a blocking issue? Is this so severe that you can’t actually find out the menu? Like, in my opinion, you can find the menu items, you can get all the information that’s available, it just will take longer.

I think it’s a good discussion to have in our community and I’d love to hear what you think.

We’d love to hear from you. Let’s continue the conversation. Please add your comments and we’ll be happy to respond. Thank you so much for your time, and we’ll see you in our next episode.

References

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Thomas Logan
Owner | NYC, USA
Founder | Accessibility Consultant | Global Speaker | ADA WCAG Section 508 | A11y | Accessibility VR & A11yNYC Organizer

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