Following a two-day bench trial, a federal judge in Florida issued a decision on June 12, 2017, finding that the website of grocer Winn-Dixie must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the website is "heavily integrated" with the store’s physical location. This case is notable because it is one of the first, if only, Title III ADA website accessibility cases to go to trial. In addition, it marks another win for plaintiffs advocating that websites of private entities are subject to the ADA.
Title III of the ADA, which applies only to private entities, prohibits places of "public accommodation" from discriminating in the full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, and facilities on the basis of an individual’s disability. Drafted in 1990 before the internet boom, the ADA lists 11 categories of physical locations that fall under its purview. While it is undisputed that the brick-and-mortar locations of private entities like Winn-Dixie are subject to ADA accessibility requirements, the issue that has vexed courts and entities alike over the past decades is whether the website of an entity with a physical location is also subject to the ADA.
Courts across the country have split on this issue. Some courts impose a "nexus" requirement, holding that websites are exempt from the ADA unless there is a connection between the physical location and the goods or services offered online. Courts on the other side of the split impose no nexus requirement and point to the intent of the ADA in holding that websites of covered entities are subject to ADA accessibility requirements.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which enforces the ADA, has played its part in muddying the waters. Since 2010, DOJ has taken the position that Title III of the ADA encompasses online content as places of accommodation. In 2010, DOJ issued a notice that it intended to promulgate formal regulations to that effect, but those efforts have since stalled. The lack of legislative and administrative action on this issue has contributed to the circuit split on the proper application of the ADA to websites.
In Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., the plaintiff alleged that the Winn-Dixie website was inaccessible to blind individuals like him. Specifically, he alleged that the inaccessibility of the website prevented him from enjoying features of the website such as accessing digital coupons, using the online pharmacy, and finding store locations. The judge declined to decide the greater issue of whether a website is a place of "public accommodation" under the ADA, and instead issued his holding on the less groundbreaking issue of the nexus requirement. The judge found that the online content, including digital coupons, pharmacy, and store locator feature, were sufficiently connected to the physical stores such that the plaintiff was denied the full and equal enjoyment of Winn Dixie’s goods and services.
The court ordered an injunction, requiring the parties to confer on a timeline for making the website accessible in conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 criteria, an international standard for making internet content accessible. Although the order and decision in this case are only binding on the parties involved, they reinforce the need for private entities covered by the ADA to take steps to ensure their online content is accessible to individuals with disabilities.