Website Accessibility and the ADA: 11th Circuit Offers Guidance, But How Much Will Change?

The ADA and Website Accessibility – A Brief Background: Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities and services of places of public accommodation. Although the applicable regulations define “[p]lace of public accommodation” in a way that seems to limit the ADA’s reach to brick-and-mortar business operations, the past half-decade has brought a flood of lawsuits alleging that company websites (typically retail websites) inaccessible to individuals with visual impairments violate the ADA. However, few of these suits have reached the courtroom, leaving businesses with little case law and no regulatory guidance to rely on in determining whether websites are covered by the ADA and, if covered, what is required to make them ADA-compliant.

The 11th Circuit Decision: On April 7, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit filled some of this gap in the law with its long-anticipated decision in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. The court held that a website is not a place of public accommodation within the meaning of Title III of the ADA. Moreover, the court concluded that Winn-Dixie’s website, which lacked auxiliary services for visually impaired individuals, did not run afoul of the ADA because the plaintiff could still access the goods, services, privileges, and advantages of Winn-Dixie’s physical locations.

Plaintiff Juan Carlos Gil, who is legally blind, frequented Wynn-Dixie’s physical grocery stores for nearly 15 years before suing the grocery chain in July 2016. Although customers who accessed the store’s physical location could purchase goods and pick up their prescriptions, the website primarily served as a means for customers to re-fill prescriptions for pick-up and link online coupons to their Winn-Dixie store cards for use in the physical store. Because the website was not designed to integrate with screen reader software for the visually impaired, the plaintiff sued Winn-Dixie under the ADA, alleging that its website is a place of public accommodation and that the website denied him “the full and equal enjoyment of the services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations” — i.e., the ability to order his prescriptions and link coupons to his store card just like anyone else.

The trial court ruled in favor of Gil. The court found that because the website was “heavily integrated” with Winn-Dixie’s physical stores, it need not decide whether the website alone was a “public accommodation” within the meaning of Title III. Moreover, the court held that by failing to design a website accessible to visually impaired individuals who must use screen reader software, Winn-Dixie violated the ADA.

The 11th Circuit vacated the lower court’s ruling entirely. First, the court held that a website is not a place of public accommodation. The court reasoned that Title III of the ADA clearly and unambiguously defines “public accommodation” and “public accommodations are limited to actual, physical places.” Therefore, Gil’s inability to access Winn-Dixie’s website did not violate Title III.

Second, the court found that Winn-Dixie’s website did not otherwise violate Title III because Gil had access to the goods, services, privileges and advantages of Winn-Dixie’s physical stores. The court acknowledged that a violation under the ADA may arise when a website operates as an “intangible barrier” to goods or services. However, unlike its prior decision in Rendon v. Valleycrest Productions, Ltd. — where the court found the defendant’s sole use of an automated hotline created an “intangible barrier” to potential contestants for a game show — in Winn-Dixie the court found that Winn-Dixie’s website had “limited functionality” and did not serve as a bar to Gil’s ability to enjoy the benefits, goods and services offered at the physical stores. The 11th Circuit noted that customers could only purchase goods, pick up prescriptions, redeem coupons and complete their transactions within the store, whereas the website offered no such feature. Moreover, the court emphasized that nothing had prevented Gil from shopping at the physical store for nearly 15 years before electing to use the website instead.

Initial Takeaways: First, while the decision is a win for companies within the 11th Circuit, the very nature of the internet and website accessibility means website accommodation cases can be brought just about anywhere in the country. This includes jurisdictions like California, New York, and Massachusetts where the circuits or district courts have already ruled that the ADA does apply to websites.

Second, the 11th Circuit’s decision leaves some uncertainty as to how the ADA will be applied in circumstances where, unlike Winn-Dixie, a brick-and-mortar retailer has an e-commerce component or a business conducts sales solely through its website.

Finally, it is difficult to predict where other circuits will come down on this issue and/or when the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve the split developing among the circuits. Therefore, to minimize legal exposure under the ADA, businesses, especially those that offer products for sale via their websites, should continue to ensure that their sites are accessible to individuals with visual impairments.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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