On April 7, 2021, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a victory for businesses and retailers who have faced growing numbers of lawsuits alleging their websites violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") because they are not accessible to those who are vision-impaired. In so doing, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a bench trial verdict obtained by a plaintiff in the Southern District of Florida. This decision could be "felt" beyond the Eleventh Circuit as it contradicts with decisions from other federal circuits, making this issue now potentially ripe for intervention from the United States Supreme Court, which just passed on addressing this issue a few years ago.
In Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., 17-13467, 2021 WL 1289906, (11th Cir. Apr. 7, 2021), the Eleventh Circuit vacated and reversed the lower court's trial findings that Winn-Dixie's website violated the ADA because it was not compatible with the plaintiff's screen-reading software that he used to read websites on his computer.
The Eleventh Circuit is the first federal, appellate circuit in this country to find that a website is not a place of "public accommodation" under the ADA. To reach that conclusion, the Court found that the “the statutory language in Title III of the ADA defining ‘public accommodation’ is unambiguous and clear,” and that none of the locations listed in the act were intangible, such as websites. This directly contradicts rulings from other circuits, notably the First and the Second Circuits, who have decided that websites are places of "public accommodation." The Court also took time to state unequivocally that it would not adopt the "nexus standard" – used in the Ninth Circuit for example – which says that a website could still violate the ADA even if it is not a "place of public accommodation" so long as the website was heavily integrated with the physical store so that it operated as a gateway to physical store locations. Instead, the Eleventh Circuit made clear that a plaintiff would still need to show that there was some impediment to accessing products at the physical store location itself.
The Court further found that, on the facts before it, Winn-Dixie's website did not create an "intangible barrier" that would have otherwise violated Title III. Here, the relevant analysis was whether the plaintiff was unable to communicate with or access the services offered in the physical store. Plaintiff's testimony at the trial level showed that, for at least fifteen years, he used the services at the physical store location with no issue.
While the decision was, in part, limited on its facts, the Court made some definitive pronouncements by holding that websites are not places of "public accommodation" and by rejecting the "nexus" standard. The ruling may not completely eliminate these kinds of lawsuits, but it should serve to detract many, and for those undeterred, should serve to make their cases a bit more difficult to prosecute by making dispositive motion practice easier to succeed.