In a long anticipated ruling, a split panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a 2017 judgment that Winn-Dixie Stores’ website violated a visually impaired Florida customer’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) based on the majority’s conclusion that websites are not places of “public accommodation” under Title III of the ADA.
Plaintiff, Juan Carlos Gil, a Winn-Dixie customer who is visually impaired, sued Winn-Dixie for declaratory and injunctive relief under the ADA in July 2016. He alleged he was interested in filling prescriptions on-line, but Winn Dixie’s website was inaccessible to visually impaired customers who use screen-reader software to access it.
Gil claimed the website was “a place of public accommodation under the ADA,” and that it had a “direct nexus” to the chain’s stores and on-site pharmacies. Gil therefore contended that Winn-Dixie failed to provide him “full and equal enjoyment of the services, provided by and through its website.” In response, Winn-Dixie argued the ADA’s public accommodation provisions do not apply to its website because the site is not a physical location. The district court concluded that Winn-Dixie’s website is “heavily integrated” with, and serves as a “gateway” for, the physical stores.
After a bench trial, in which Gil testified he was uncomfortable requesting his prescription refills in person because he did not know who might be standing near him and could overhear his conversation, the district court entered judgment in favor of Gil, finding that Winn-Dixie had violated Gil’s rights under Title III of the ADA. The district court issued an injunction requiring Winn-Dixie to make its website accessible to individuals with disabilities, to conform its website to web content accessibility guidelines, and to implement a publicly available Web Accessibility Policy.
On appeal, the majority found that the statutory language of Title III of the ADA describes 12 types of locations that fall within the definition of “public accommodation.” All are “tangible, physical places,” not “intangible places or spaces, such as websites.” Because the Act’s provisions for public accommodations “are limited to actual, physical places,” the majority concluded that an individual’s inability to access a website cannot be a violation of Title III “[a]bsent congressional action that broadens the definition of ‘places of public accommodation’ to include websites.”
The dissent by Judge Jill Pryor cautioned of future ramifications in cases addressing the treatment of customers with disabilities and predicted that the “majority opinion gives stores and restaurants license to provide websites and apps that are inaccessible to visually-impaired customers so long as those customers can access an inferior version of these public accommodations.” Judge Pryor noted Gil is thus prevented from receiving equal treatment and a “like experience” as should be provided under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Shortly after the decision was issued, Gil filed a motion for rehearing. The motion for rehearing remains pending.
CSK’s attorneys will continue to monitor this significant ADA case, as well as other legal developments. For more information, please contact any of our offices throughout the State of Florida.
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