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Eleventh Circuit ruling is a rare win for businesses against ADA website lawsuits

The threat that a company’s website violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has diminished some thanks to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Lawsuits have become increasingly common alleging that websites must be “accessible” to persons with visual disabilities, such as is required for “public accommodations” under the ADA – like Braille keypads at ATMs and wheelchair ramps at sidewalks. Such “website accessibility” cases have become an increasing nuisance to businesses, many of which believe that their websites comply with industry guidelines to enable the blind and visually impaired to read screens using special software. While it is relatively easy to install Braille keypads or install curb cuts to eliminate physical barriers, digital content is always changing, and coding webpages for every screen reader software is complex. As a result, company websites are susceptible to serial lawsuits looking for a violation.

On April 7, 2021, in Gil v. Winn-Dixie, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals provided an uncommon win for businesses concerning website accessibility. To claim an ADA violation, a plaintiff must allege that a defendant is a private entity that owns, leases or operates a place of public accommodation, among other things.  The federal appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, held that websites that do not offer goods or services for online sale, like Winn-Dixie’s so-called “limited-use website,” are not public accommodations, and thus are not subject to the ADA.

The ADA pre-dates the internet and not surprisingly does not address websites among the 12 types of physical locations subject to “public accommodation” requirements. For this reason, reading the ADA strictly, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that Winn-Dixie’s website is not a place of public accommodation under the ADA. The federal appeals court also rejected the idea that Winn-Dixie’s website, which is intangible, had a sufficient “nexus” to Winn-Dixie’s actual, physical places because, with the exception of filling prescriptions for in-store pick up, its website has only limited functionality. All Winn-Dixie purchases must occur at the store.

In this way, the ruling that limited-use websites are not subject to the ADA is especially important for healthcare and other organizations whose websites only provide online access to information.

Other federal appeals courts, however, have previously held that limited-use websites have a nexus to brick-and-mortar stores which sell goods and services. While the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling is a win for businesses whose websites are informational and do not offer goods or services for sale online, it may also set up a split among federal appeals courts which the United States Supreme Court may decide in coming years, if not reversed by the Eleventh Circuit en banc. Alternatively, Congress may amend the ADA in coming months and years, adding websites among public accommodations subject to the ADA. For these reasons, businesses should continue to follow industry guidelines for website accessibility despite the welcome addition of a new tool to fight serial, nuisance ADA lawsuits.

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Derek Edwards
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