Does Your Website Violate the Americans with Disabilities Act?

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In the Eleventh Circuit, a website is not a place of public accommodation for purposes of Title III of the ADA.

The Americans with Disabilities Act generally requires that a “place of public accommodation” must be accessible to individual with disabilities.  In recent years, numerous lawsuits have been filed claiming that websites are inaccessible in violation of the ADA.  For example, a blind person will sue because a website cannot be read by specialized screen reader software.  A recent decision from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals may limit future lawsuits of that kind.  See Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., No. 17-13467, 2021 WL 1289906 (11th Cir. Apr. 7, 2021).

Juan Carlos Gil is legally blind and a frequent visitor of Winn-Dixie’s physical grocery stores to shop and occasionally fill prescriptions.  When Gil visited Winn-Dixie’s web site, he found that it was incompatible with screen reader software he used to access websites and vocalize sites’ content.  He sued Winn-Dixie and claiming that its website was not accessible in violation of Title III of the ADA.  A trial judge agreed and found a violation of the ADA, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed.

The primary issue was whether Winn-Dixie’s website was a “place of public accommodation.” 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 ….”  42 U.S.C. § 12182(a).  Thus, Gil claimed that the website was a “place of public accommodation” and he was being denied full enjoyment of it.

The Eleventh Circuit disagreed and relied primarily on the language of the ADA itself.  That statute provides twelve examples of places of public accommodations.  See 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7).  “The list covers most physical locations in which individual will find themselves in their daily lives.  Notably, however, the list does not include websites.”  Gil, 2021 WL 1289906 at *6.  The Court also noted that the Department of Justice’s ADA regulation provides a similar list:  “The regulation echoes the language of the statute, listing a plethora of physical spaces, including ‘[a] baker, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment,’ not including websites.”  Id.  As a result, the court concluded that “public accommodations  are limited to actual, physical places.  Necessarily then, we hold that websites are not a place of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA.”  Id. at *7.

But, that conclusion didn’t end the opinion.  Prior decisions in the Eleventh Circuit held that Title III of “the ADA prohibits not just physical barriers, but also ‘intangible barriers,’ that prevent an individual from fully and equally enjoying the goods, services, privileges or advantages of a place of public accommodation.”  Gil, 2021 WL 1289906  at *8.  So, Gil cleverly argued that the inaccessible website prevented him from fully enjoying a place that is clearly a place of public accommodation — Winn Dixie’s physical store.  The Eleventh Circuit relied upon three facts to reject that argument.

First, and most importantly, with website has only limited functionality.  The court stressed that “it is not a point of sale; all purchases must occur at the store.”  Gil, 2021 WL 1289906 at *9.  Second, the limited functions permitted by the website (requesting prescription refills and redeeming coupons) had to be completed in-store.  Finally, nothing prevented Gil from shopping at the physical store.  Based upon those facts, the court found that the inaccessible website was not an intangible barrier.

The Gil decision leaves open the possibility that a future disabled person might be able to prevail under the ADA if an inaccessible website prevents them from making purchases that are available on the site.  But, the vast majority of websites are informative, rather than sales-oriented.  As a result, the Gil decision provides protection to many businesses whose websites might not be accessible to the disabled.