United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Civil Action No. 17-13467
2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 10024
April 7, 2021
Keywords: Internet, websites, accessibility, ADA Title III, public accommodation
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit did not find a website to be a “place of public accommodation” under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Additionally, the Court held that Winn-Dixie’s website does not constitute an “intangible barrier,” and Gil’s inability to access the website does not violate Title III of the ADA.
Appellant Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. (“Winn-Dixie”), is a grocery store chain that at the time of the lower court ruling in 2017 ran a website without an option to purchase groceries. The purpose of Winn-Dixie’s website at the time of the lower court ruling in 2017 was to refill existing prescriptions online for in-store pickup. Appellee Juan Carlos Gil (“Gil”) is a long-term customer of Winn-Dixie. Gil is legally blind and has to use a screen reader software that vocalizes contents of a website. However, Winn-Dixie’s website was incompatible with Gil’s screen reader software. Gil sued Winn-Dixie Stores under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
Gil argued that the Winn-Dixie “ha[d] not provided full and equal enjoyment of the services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations provided by and through its website.”
Gil requested an order requiring Winn-Dixie to update their website to allow access to individuals with visual impairments to access their website to the full extent required by Title III of the ADA.
Winn-Dixie argued that their website is not a public place that requires accommodation.
In June 2017, the Court for the Southern District of Florida issued an injunction that required Winn-Dixie to make its website accessible to individuals with disabilities, specifically by conforming its website – including third-party vendors to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG). The injunction also required Winn-Dixie to implement a publicly available Web Accessibility Policy, and to provide mandatory web accessibility training to its employees.
Whether Gil has standing to bring this case?
The Court reviewed standing de novo.
Winn-Dixie argued that Gil lacks standing to bring this action – specifically, that Gil has suffered no injury in fact and that he was able to use the physical stores for years before he knew the website existed.
Gil argued that his inability to access Winn-Dixie’s website is a particularized injury in fact. Gil specifically argued that he suffered an injury both when “he was unable to avail himself of the goods and services” on the website and when the website interfered with his “ability to equally enjoy the goods and services of the Winn-Dixie’s stores.”
The Court reasoned that Gil’s difficulties caused by his inability access much of the Winn-Dixie website constitutes a “concrete and particularized” injury that is not “conjectural” or “hypothetical,” and the injury will continue if the website remains inaccessible. The Court held that Gil has Article III standing to bring the case.
Whether Winn-Dixie’s website is a place of public accommodation in and of itself, such that its inaccessibility violates Title III of the ADA?
Under Title III of the ADA, “[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.” Title III of the ADA further states discrimination occurs when an operator of a public accommodation “fail[s] to take such steps as may be necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services.”
The Court stated that the statutory language in Title III of the ADA that defines a public accommodation is unambiguous and clear. The court goes through 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7) and determines this section provides a broad list of physical locations that are identified as public accommodations. However, the list does not include websites. Thus, the Court holds that a public accommodation is limited to an actual physical place.
If it is not a place of public accommodation, whether the website otherwise violates Title III of the ADA?
Gil argues that given the Eleventh Circuit Court’s precedent, the ADA forbids not just physical barriers, but also “intangible barriers,” that prevent an individual with a disability from fully and equally enjoying the goods, services, privileges, or advantages of a place of public accommodation. Thus, he contends that the website violates Title III of the ADA because its inaccessibility serves as an intangible barrier to his “equal access to the services, privileges, and advantages of Winn-Dixie’s physical stores,” which are a place of public accommodation.
The Court stated that Winn-Dixie’s website is designed for limited use unlike other websites. The court analyzed Rendon v. Valleycrest Productions, Ltd. In Rendon, their phone system was the sole access point designed to pick contestants for “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” and that same phone system was inaccessible by individuals with hearing impairments. Here, the Court distinguished the case-at-hand from Rendon, because even though Winn-Dixie’s website was limited and inaccessible to visually impaired individuals, it does not function as an intangible barrier to an individual accessing the goods, services, privileges, or advantages of Winn-Dixie’s physical store. Further, the website does not provide a point-of-sale function where all purchases must be done in-store. Nothing prevented Gil from shopping at the physical store.
The Court held that Winn-Dixie’s website does not constitute an “intangible barrier” to Gil’s ability to access and enjoy fully and equally “the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of” a place of public accommodation. Additionally, Gil’s inability to access the website does not violate Title III of the ADA.
Whether the district court erred in its verdict and judgment in favor of Gil, including the court’s injunction?
Yes. Absent congressional action that broadens the definition of “places of public accommodation” to include websites, we cannot extend ADA liability to the facts presented to us here, where there is no barrier to the access demanded by the statute.
The Appeals Court of the Eleventh Circuit vacated the Southern District Court of Florida’s Final Judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.