Recently, the District Court for the Southern District of Florida held in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., that Winn Dixie’s website violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and awarded the plaintiff attorneys fees and injunctive relief. Many believe this to be the first trial regarding website accessibility to date. While this opinion is not binding on any other district—or even other judges within the Southern District of Florida—it is intriguing for several reasons.
Title III of the ADA prohibits the owner of a place of public accommodation from discriminating “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 . . . .” In this particular case the plaintiff, an individual who is legally blind and has cerebral palsy, alleged he could not access online digital coupons, refill his prescriptions, or locate nearby stores.
Reason 1: The court found that Winn-Dixie violated the rights guaranteed to a disabled individual under Title III of the ADA by not providing services it offers through its website in an effective, accessible format for the plaintiff. This opinion comes at a time when other courts have recently provided defendant-friendly language in dismissing website accessibility lawsuits. Winn-Dixie determined that “[w]here a website is heavily integrated with physical store locations and operates as a gateway to the physical store locations,” a website is a service of a public accommodation and is covered by the ADA.
Reason 2: The court endorsed the Worldwide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) as the standard of accessibility; an endorsement not widely seen in case law given the lack of official regulations on website accessibility for public accommodations. The DOJ has expressed its preference for these standards in advance notices of proposed rulemaking dating back to 2010, but has yet to issue any regulations on website accessibility. These standards were required by the injunction included in the opinion, with deadlines for compliance to be agreed upon by the parties.
Reason 3: The court confirmed that “where a website is wholly unconnected to a physical location, . . . the website is not covered by the ADA.” This is in line with the majority of circuits, which require that a place of public accommodation must be a physical place. In jurisdictions requiring that a public accommodation be a physical place, courts employ a “nexus analysis,” which allows courts to determine that a website is subject to the ADA without having to determine that a website is in and of itself a public accommodation. The takeaway here is that in those jurisdictions that require a public accommodation be a physical place (Third, Sixth and Ninth Circuits), a website that is not connected to a business with a physical location, but whose services exist solely online is likely not going to be subject to the ADA.
Reason 4: The opinion is also significant for what it did not discuss—the auxiliary aid requirement. In website accessibility suits in the past, defendants have argued that having a live, in-person representative, who could field phone calls from disabled individuals experiencing accessibility problems, was an appropriate auxiliary aid under the flexible regulations currently in place. A California court recently noted, “Plaintiff has failed to articulate why either Defendant’s provision of a telephone hotline for the visually impaired . . . does not fall within the range of permissible options afforded under the ADA.” In Winn-Dixie, this issue was not squarely before the court. The court noted Winn-Dixie spent $2 million in 2015 to open its current website, and spent $7 million in 2016 to remake the website for its online rewards program, “Plenti.” Moreover, Winn-Dixie’s vice president of IT, Application and Delivery testified that it was feasible for the website to be modified to be accessible to the disabled. Winn-Dixie submitted that it would cost $250,000 to integrate the WCAG 2.0 standards. A third party website accessibility testing company estimated the cost at $37,000. Either way, given the recent, large expenditures on its website, Winn-Dixie could not claim it would be an undue burden to bring its website into compliance.
Reason 5: The court did not require its website to be compatible will all varieties of screen reader software on the market, but only the main screen reader software programs, such as NVDA or JAWS. It is the responsibility of those less widely used screen reader programs to make themselves compatible. The court came to the same opinion with internet browsers, and noted that the main stream browsers such as Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Safari, already comply with WCAG 2.0 standards.
Winn-Dixie is likely the first of what could be many trial orders on Web Accessibility in the coming year. While most of these cases settle after the motion to dismiss or summary judgment stage, the ever increasing number of filings and the lack of DOJ guidelines on web accessibility ensure that these issues will continue to be relevant.