Federal Court Holds Full Trial on Issue of Website Accessibility to Visually Impaired Users
A U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida has held that Title VII of the ADA, applicable to “Public Accommodations” applies to the Winn-Dixie Companies’ website, finding that the company has an obligation to make their website accessible by individuals with disabilities who use computers, laptops, tablets and smart phones. The policy must ensure that persons with disabilities have full and equal enjoyment of its website and shall accompany the public policy statement with an accessible means of submitting accessibility statements and problems.
Juan Carlos Gil, who brought the suit (Juan Carlos Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Florida, Case No. 16-23020), is a visually impaired individual who is a customer of Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., a regional chain of grocery stores. The question before the court was whether the website is subject to the ADA as a service of public accommodation, or in the alternative, whether the website is a public accommodation in and of itself, 2) whether Gil was denied the full and equal enjoyment of Winn-Dixie’s goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations because of his disability, and 3) whether the requested modifications to Winn-Dixie’s website are reasonable and readily achievable.
The plaintiff uses JAWS (screen reader software) 95% of the time. He shopped at Winn-Dixie because of their low prices. He was uncomfortable going to the pharmacy in person as others would overhear. In addition, the only way to access coupons was to have a friend read them to him from a newspaper. 90% of the tabs on Winn-Dixie’s website did not work with his software. While Winn Dixie had been building an ADA policy for its website, they did not yet have one. The court noted that “The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines” addresses all the issues raised by Gil related to the challenges of the Winn-Dixie website.
The court stated that where a website is heavily integrated with physical store locations and operates as a gateway to the physical store locations, other courts have found the website is a service of public accommodation and is covered by the ADA. The ADA does not merely require physical access to a place of public accommodation, rather the ADA requires that disabled individuals be provided “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a). Here, because the website offered the ability to find store locations, links to a rewards card, and online pharmacy management, Gil was not provided full and equal enjoyment.
Under the ADA, the plaintiff is not entitled to damages, but to reasonable attorney fees and injunctive relief. While there is conflicting federal court decisions regarding this issue, clients are advised to review the WCAG2.0 guidelines and their web compliance, in light of the potential risk.