Websites Not Bound by ADA Accessibility Rules, 11th Circuit Finds

The ruling vacates a federal judge’s decision that the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain’s website violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by being inaccessible to visually impaired people who use screen-reader software.

A Winn-Dixie store in Port Charlotte, Fla. (Photo by PCHS-NJROTC from Wikipedia Commons via Courthouse News)

ATLANTA (CN) — In a decision that a dissenting judge warned could have widespread consequences for visually impaired people, a split panel of the 11th Circuit ruled Wednesday that websites for businesses that are generally open to the public are not places of public accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court ruled that although “inaccessibility online can be a significant inconvenience,” supermarket chain Winn-Dixie cannot be found liable under Title III of the ADA for having a website that is inaccessible to disabled people who use screen-reading software.

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodations, including hotels, restaurants, bars, movie theaters, grocery stores, parks, schools and museums.

“All of these listed types of locations are tangible, physical places. No intangible places or spaces, such as websites, are listed. Thus, we conclude that, pursuant to the plain language of Title III of the ADA, public accommodations are limited to actual, physical places,” U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch, a Donald Trump appointee, wrote on behalf of the majority.

The majority found that the absence of “auxiliary aids” on the website does not act as an “intangible barrier” to exclude customers from Winn-Dixie’s physical stores.

“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 ruling states.

The decision vacates a 2017 Florida federal court ruling concluding that Winn-Dixie violated the ADA because its website did not offer a visually impaired customer the “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations” that it provides to other customers.

In a 34-page dissenting opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Jill Pryor, a Barack Obama appointee, stressed the broadness of the ADA and wrote that the majority misunderstood the law’s scope.

Pryor wrote that the website’s incompatibility with screen-reading technology denied disabled customers “the full and equal enjoyment of services, privileges, and advantages offered by Winn-Dixie stores.”

Juan Carlos Gil, who is legally blind, sued Winn-Dixie in 2016 under Title III of the ADA. He claimed that he was unable to access the chain’s website because it was incompatible with screen-reader software, which he used to vocalize website content.

U.S. District Judge Robert Scola Jr. sided with Gil and decided that the store’s website is “heavily integrated with” and operates as a “gateway” to Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations.

Winn-Dixie does not sell goods on its website. The website’s primary functions are to allow customers to refill existing prescriptions for in-store pickup and to link digital manufacturer coupons to customer rewards cards.

According to Wednesday’s ruling, Gil sought to use the online prescription refill feature so that he could avoid having to verbally disclose his medical information to employees at the store, where others might overhear. He also wanted to use coupons without having to ask friends or store employees for assistance.

Branch opined that the website does not “impede access to the goods and services offered in the physical stores.”

But the dissent points out that customers who request refills in-store might wait up to 30 minutes before the refill is ready. A sighted customer who submitted a refill request online would be offered “a streamlined, fast process that offered greater privacy.”

“After comparing the experiences of Winn-Dixie’s disabled and nondisabled customers regarding express prescription refills, I cannot understand how the majority concludes that disabled customers, like Gil, were offered the equal treatment and ‘like experience’ that A.L. requires,” Pryor wrote, referring to the 11th Circuit’s 2018 decision in A.L. ex rel. D.L. v. Walt Disney Parks & Resorts US, Inc.

The panel’s majority also ruled that Winn-Dixie’s website did not represent an “intangible barrier” to Gil’s ability to access the goods and services of the supermarket’s physical stores. But Pryor wrote that the result of the panel’s decision “cannot be squared with the ADA.”

“Places of public accommodation, such as stores and restaurants, increasingly use websites and apps to offer their customers safer, more efficient, and more flexible access to goods and services in physical stores. As I read it, 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’ offerings,” she wrote.

A representative for Winn-Dixie did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Branch was joined in the majority by U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves, a George W. Bush appointee sitting by designation from the Eastern District of Kentucky.

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