Many a battle over the interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has taken place in United States courts. Earlier this month, in a reversal of a lower court decision for the case Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that Winn-Dixie stores did not violate the ADA. The Eleventh District decided to “remand [Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores] for further proceedings,” meaning that this case will later return to a lower court. It is important to note that the Eleventh Circuit’s decision that Winn-Dixie stores did not violate the ADA does not apply outside of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, the states that make up the Eleventh Circuit.
Interpreting a “place of public accommodation”
The ADA guarantees that Americans with disabilities will be able to access “places of public accommodation.” The majority opinion of the Eleventh Circuit notes that, “We have stated time and again that courts must presume that a legislature says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there.” The majority believes that any expansion or clarification of the ADA must be handled by Congress. The ADA lists several examples of “places of public accommodation,” but makes no mention of websites. The Eleventh Circuit concludes that, “public accommodations are limited to actual, physical places” and that the Winn-Dixie website is not a “place of public accommodation.”
A nuanced argument
Additionally, the Winn-Dixie website does not sell products, furthering the Eleventh District’s opinion that the website is not covered by the ADA.
Gil, the plaintiff, is blind, and was attempting to use digital coupons and put in prescription refills online but his screen reader was unable to read the Winn-Dixie website. Though his disability prevented Gil from using the website, the majority writes that, “Winn Dixie’s website does not constitute an ‘intangible barrier’ to [the plaintiff’s] ability to access and enjoy fully and equally ‘the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of’ a place of public accommodation.” Because goods are not sold on the website, the Winn-Dixie website could not be considered a “place of public accommodation.”
The dissent does not believe that whether or not a website sells goods is an important consideration for deciding whether a website must be an accessible “place of public accommodation.” The dissent writes that, “Winn-Dixie’s visually-impaired customers . . . were treated differently than its sighted customers and denied the full and equal enjoyment of services, privileges, and advantages offered by Winn-Dixie stores.” The dissent continues, “this inferior treatment amounted to disability discrimination by the operator of a place of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA.”
Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores versus Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC
The Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores is a departure from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC. The Eleventh Circuit majority explains that while Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores and Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC share some similarities, they are fundamentally different cases.
The Court explained, “While the underlying general difficulty for the plaintiff in Robles—the incompatibility of Domino’s website and app with the plaintiff’s screen reader software—is similar to Gil’s frustrations with Winn-Dixie’s website, the particular facts of Robles are distinctly and materially different from the facts of this case. Domino’s made pizza sales through its website and app; here, Winn-Dixie makes no sales of its products on its site.”
The fact that the Winn-Dixie website does not sell products was the key to the Eleventh District’s thought process.
This means that the Eleventh District Circuit Court may have ruled in favor of Gil if the Winn-Dixie website sold products and that lower courts in the Eleventh District are free to rule in favor of plaintiffs in cases involving eCommerce websites.
The present and future
For now, Winn-Dixie will not have to abide by the injunction issued by a lower court. This injunction would have compelled the company to take several steps toward web accessibility, such as revising the current website until it was accessible, and providing accessibility training to employees who work with the website.
For his part, Gil indicated he will be pursuing a rehearing and as well as taking his case to the Supreme Court.