A federal appeals court earlier this month ruled that grocery chain Winn-Dixie did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by having its website inaccessible by screen readers, a decision that reverses the finding of a lower court.
In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit vacated a 2017 court decision that Winn-Dixie violated the ADA after a customer who is blind said that he attempted to refill his prescriptions on the company’s website but was unable to do so with screen-reading software. The customer argued that the website was a “place of public accommodation” under the ADA and, thus, is required to offer the same service to customers with disabilities as it offers to those without.
The appeals court however, concluded that Winn-Dixie’s site is not a place of public accommodation as the ADA defines the term and that the website did not create an “intangible barrier” for the customer.
Judge Elizabeth Branch wrote the majority opinion for herself and U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves, sitting by designation. Judge Jill Pryor disagreed, arguing that Winn-Dixie treated the plaintiff as “a second-class customer.”
The court ruled that the language in Title III of the ADA defining public accommodation notes only tangible, physical places (hotels, restaurants, bars, theaters, event centers, retail stores, museums, libraries, parks, schools, among others).
“No intangible places or spaces, such as websites, are listed,” the ruling stated. “Thus, we conclude that, pursuant to the plain language of Title III of the ADA, public accommodations are limited to actual, physical places, and the plain meaning of Title III is that a public accommodation is a place.”
The majority opinion also concluded that Winn-Dixie’s website has limited functionality, and is not a point of sale, meaning that all purchases must occur at the store. The ruling argued that not being able to use the website wouldn’t prevent the plaintiff in this case from going into the store for prescription refills as he had before discovering Winn-Dixie’s website.
In her dissent, Judge Pryor argued that Winn-Dixie treated its blind customers differently than its sighted customers.
“I fear the majority opinion’s errors will have widespread consequences,” Pryor wrote. “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. That result cannot be squared with the ADA.”
Website accessibility lawsuits have been the subject of considerable study and confusion in the court systems in recent years. Most of the confusion has stemmed from how (and if) websites fall under the ADA’s reach and, specifically, the steps that businesses must take to ensure their online presence meets accessibility requirements. Compounding matters is a lack of formal rulemaking on website accessibility from the Department of Justice, which places responsibility on the courts to interpret the law on their own.
Lainey Feingold, a disability rights lawyer and author, wrote that the 11th Circuit’s opinion ignores the language and intent of the ADA, the rights of disabled people, and the reality of the 21st century digital world.
“This court is the only one in the country to have such a narrow view of the ADA,” she said. “This opinion ignores the civil rights of disabled people but it should not stop site owners from building websites that work for everyone.”
Feingold also wrote that the opinion is limited.
“The United States federal court system is divided into 12 parts, called circuits. Each circuit includes one or more of the 50 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia. The Winn-Dixie opinion comes out of the 11th Circuit. The 11th Circuit includes Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. The Winn-Dixie opinion is only binding in ADA cases in the federal courts in those states.”