Website class actions alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) have been on the rise in recent years – involving small and large businesses alike. These lawsuits generally involve a plaintiff who suffers from a disability and attempted to access a business’ website, but their disability hindered their enjoyment of the full range of the website’s services. Moreover, these website class action lawsuits began their rapid proliferation in June 2017 after a Southern District of Florida court held that Winn-Dixie grocery store chain had violated the ADA because the inaccessibility of its website had denied the plaintiff the full and equal enjoyments of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations that that grocery store offered. However, now the Eleventh Circuit has unequivocally clarified that a website is not a “place of public accommodation” within the meaning of Title III of the ADA.
The District Court: Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores
In 2017, Plaintiff Juan Carlos Gil, who is legally blind, sued the grocery retailer Winn-Dixie, alleging the business violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the website was allegedly inaccessible to Gil due to its incompatibility with Gil’s screen reading software. Gil wanted to order his prescriptions for pickup and to download online coupons onto his rewards card for store use. The Southern District of Florida concluded that as Winn-Dixie’s website was not accessible to the screen reader users, it had violated the ADA. Moreover, the court determined that as the website was heavily integrated with Winn-Dixie’s physical stores, acting as a gateway to the physical store, the court did not need to consider whether websites were places of public accommodation under the ADA. Finally, the Southern District of Florida, issued a detailed injunctive relief order, requiring Winn-Dixie to make its website conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guideline 2.0 Level AA – a privately developed set of criteria for web accessibility that has not been adopted as a legal standard under the ADA for the public accommodation websites. In response to this finding, Winn-Dixie allocated $250,000 to update their site to make it more accessible to those with significant visual impairment.
The Circuit Court: Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores
Winn-Dixie immediately appealed the Southern District of Florida’s holding, seeking further clarification on three issues:
- Whether Gil has standing to bring this case;
- Whether websites are places of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA; and
- Whether the district court erred in its verdict and judgment in favor of Gil, including the court’s injunction.
In April 2021, the Eleventh Circuit held, in relevant part that:
- Winn-Dixie did not violate the ADA because its website is not a place for public accommodation; and
- Winn-Dixie’s website did not pose an intangible barrier to his access to goods, services, privileges, or advantages to Winn-Dixie’s physical stores.
In reaching its conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit focused on two important facts:
- No goods or services could be purchased on Winn-Dixie’s website; and
- All interactions with Winn-Dixie can be, although need to be, initiated on the website must be completed in store: prescription pickups and redemption of coupons.
Therefore, the Winn-Dixie website had limited functionality and purchases could not be made on the Winn-Dixie website.
What does this mean going forward?
After this recent decision, there are now three different theories of liability for website accessibility adopted by the federal courts of appeal. The Eleventh Circuit states that in order to establish a violation of the ADA based on an inaccessible website, a plaintiff must show the inaccessibility of the website prevented him/her from accessing goods, services, privileges, or advantages of a physical place of public accommodation. The Ninth Circuit has held that a plaintiff must show that an inaccessible website has a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation to establish ADA liability. The First Circuit has held that a plaintiff would have a strong argument under current precedent that a website that falls into one of twelve categories of business in ADA’s definition of the term “public accommodation” would be covered under the ADA, even if it has no physical place of public accommodation. The statutory definition of a ‘public accommodation’ is “an expansive list of physical locations,” that does not include websites.
It is unclear what the impact of the Winn Dixie decision will be, although it is anticipated that it will not have a tremendous impact on the number of website accessibility lawsuits filed because plaintiffs can choose to file in a different circuit court where the precedent is more favorable. The likelihood that the Supreme Court will take up this issue has increased due to the new conflict between the Eleventh and Ninth Circuits as to when an inaccessible website belonging to a physical place of public accommodation violates the ADA.
Many lawsuits filed in the past few years involve the threshold issue of whether and to what extent Title III applies to websites, leaving the courts left to decide. Case law is developing rapidly in this area because website accessibility claims have become a big business for the plaintiff’s bar. It is important that companies are proactive and prioritize accessibility to put themselves into a legally defensible position.
At Beckage, we have a team of highly skilled ADA attorneys and technologists who are uniquely situated to help clients navigate website accessibility and work towards national and international standards with other privacy and security laws from both a litigation defense perspective but also with unique technical experience. Beckage works with clients at all stages of the accessibility analysis and is here to help make your company evaluate your ADA compliance posture and implement a legally defensive plan to mitigate risk.
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