The decision is good news for companies facing federal website accessibility lawsuits within the Eleventh Circuit’s jurisdiction of Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
In a decision potentially affecting any company with a customer-facing website, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on April 7 that grocery retailer Winn-Dixie’s website was not a “place of public accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and that a website must serve as an “intangible barrier” to the access of physical places before a company can be held liable under the Act.
The decision in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. widens the split among federal courts of appeal in their treatment of ADA claims, and may tee up a U.S. Supreme Court review of the issue of website accessibility to disabled individuals.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals by private entities and requires that “places of public accommodation” be accessible to anyone with a disability.
The ADA was adopted in 1990 and did not specifically address how its provisions applied to websites. But, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which is responsible for administering the law, has interpreted Title III since 1996 to require that websites be made accessible to individuals with disabilities.
To date, the DOJ has not issued a uniform technical standard for accessibility. In the absence of official guidance, web accessibility litigation has increased in recent years. According to the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw, ADA Title III website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal courts jumped 177% in 2018 before leveling off in 2019 and 2020. California, New York, Florida, Texas and Georgia had the most lawsuits in 2020, with Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Jersey and Massachusetts rounding out the top ten.
The Facts of Winn-Dixie
The visually-impaired plaintiff sued Winn-Dixie for allegedly violating Title III of the ADA by making its website inaccessible to the screen reader software he had purchased to access the internet. Even though customers could not purchase anything on Winn-Dixie’s website, they could locate stores, download digital coupons for in-store purchases, and refill their prescriptions for pick-up in the stores.
The district court said that it did not need to decide whether Winn-Dixie’s website was a “place of public accommodation” under the ADA because it was “heavily integrated” with the physical grocery stores and operated “as a gateway to the physical store locations.” Therefore, it found that the website violated Title III of the ADA by denying the plaintiff the full enjoyment of Winn-Dixie’s goods and services.
The Eleventh Circuit Decision
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the trial court. Relying on the “unambiguous and clear” language of Title III of the ADA, it ruled that “public accommodations” are limited to “actual, physical places” which do not include websites or any “intangible places or spaces.”
The court noted a 3-2 split among federal courts of appeals on the issue of website accessibility under Title III, but decided to join the majority of courts that have ruled that websites are not a place of public accommodation.
The court also addressed whether Winn-Dixie’s website created an “intangible barrier” to the plaintiff’s ability to access and enjoy fully and equally ‘the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations” of its physical stores, since Title III requires places of public accommodations (in this case, the Winn-Dixie physical stores) to take steps to ensure that no disabled individual is treated differently in accessing its auxiliary aids and services. It concluded that there is no “intangible barrier” in this case, because the website had only limited functionality and was not itself a point of sale. Therefore, nothing prevented the plaintiff from shopping at the physical store, including using the pharmacy and redeeming coupons.
Finally, the Eleventh Circuit rejected the Ninth Circuit’s 2019 ruling in Robles v. Domino’s Pizza that an inaccessible website merely has to have a “nexus” to a physical location to establish liability under the ADA, finding no basis for it in the statute and noting that the Winn-Dixie website did not allow customers to purchase products or services online.
The Winn-Dixie decision is good news for companies facing federal website accessibility lawsuits within the Eleventh Circuit’s jurisdiction of Florida, Alabama and Georgia, and generally provides companies facing accusations of violating disability-discrimination laws a helpful legal precedent. However, its benefits have limitations.
First, there remains a split among federal courts of appeal over whether ADA is limited to physical locations, and among state courts under state disability discrimination laws. Because the Winn-Dixie decision has broadened the split, there is an increased hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue of website accessibility under the ADA in the future.
Second, the Eleventh Circuit emphasized the limited functionality of the Winn-Dixie website in reaching its decision — so, even a court within the jurisdiction of that Circuit could reach a different conclusion if a defendant company with physical locations also sells products and services on its website.
Until the Supreme Court resolves the federal court split — or until Congress amends the ADA — website accessibility lawsuits will continue to be filed. Therefore, companies should continue to regularly evaluate their websites to address any deficiencies in navigation for disabled individuals.
Sue Johnson is the former executive director of RESPRO, the Real Estate Services Providers Council Inc. She retired in 2015 and is now a strategic alliance consultant.