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Government and Administrative

Eleventh Circuit Vacates First-of-Its-Kind ADA Website Accessibility Judgment Against Grocery Store Chain

Eleventh Circuit Vacates First-of-Its-Kind ADA Website Accessibility Judgment Against Grocery Store Chain

In a long-awaited opinion in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.,[1] a divided Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated and remanded what had been a ground-breaking Florida district court ruling,[2] finding Winn-Dixie liable to a blind plaintiff under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) based on the inaccessibility of its website. The court’s decision is a victory for businesses that have faced an onslaught of ADA website lawsuits in recent years without federal guidance; however, many questions remain.[3]  

The litigation landscape for ADA website claims is uncertain because a clear conflict now exists among the federal circuits. Namely, the Ninth Circuit previously ruled that the ADA extends to websites if the plaintiff can show a nexus between the services offered on the inaccessible website and the public accommodation, i.e., the actual physical location;[4] whereas, the Eleventh Circuit expressly rejects the nexus theory, holding that, under the particular facts of this case, the inaccessibility of the Winn-Dixie website does not serve as an “intangible barrier” for the plaintiff to access the stores’ goods and services.

Following a bench trial in 2017, the district court sided with the plaintiff, who had claimed that his screen reader was not compatible with the services offered on Winn-Dixie’s website, such as the online pharmacy system, the ability to access digital coupons and to find store locations. The lower court concluded that Winn-Dixie had violated the ADA because its “website is heavily integrated with, and in many ways operates as a gateway to, Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations.”[5] The district court also ordered that Winn-Dixie ensure its website conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 criteria.

In the years that followed, website accessibility lawsuits exploded around the country, and many plaintiffs cited to the Winn-Dixie ruling as a cautionary tale for businesses who fought the claims. Based on Eleventh Circuit precedent[6] and a non-published opinion issued by the court in the intervening years (suggesting that a business can be liable under the ADA if a store locator feature on its website is inaccessible),[7] many court watchers had believed that the appeals court would affirm the ruling on liability and perhaps even provide guidance regarding whether application of the WCAG standard is proper.  

Instead, the Eleventh circuit conclusively holds that websites are not places of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA because websites are not actual, physical places under the express language of the Act. The court also determines that, although individuals who are visually disabled cannot access the Winn-Dixie website, they do not face an intangible barrier to access the goods, services, privileges, or advantages of Winn-Dixie’s physical stores.  In doing so, the court focuses on the “limited use” of the Winn-Dixie website, stressing that customers cannot actually make purchases on the website. The court notes that the plaintiff could go (and had gone) to the physical store locations to access the goods and services he sought, and was not persuaded by arguments that the website made certain services more convenient.

Although the court agrees there may be a situation where a business must offer an accommodation because it is “necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids,” the court does not explain whether such requirement can apply to the website of a business that also offers its goods and services at a physical location.  The court distinguishes the facts the Ninth Circuit had before it in Robles — a visually disabled plaintiff who could not order a pizza on the Domino’s website — which suggests a scenario might exist where a website could create an intangible barrier to access goods and services, requiring the business to provide an accessible website. Regardless, the bar is set very high for a plaintiff to make such a showing under the court’s ruling.

One might conclude under the court’s analysis that website-only businesses are thus required to provide an accessible website; however, such businesses likely will escape liability in this Circuit based on the court’s holding that only actual, physical places are public accommodations subject to liability under Title III of the ADA. Finally, the court makes clear that it is for the legislature to amend the ADA to expressly include websites, not for the courts to extend the reach of the ADA without clear statutory support. For practical purposes, even if a business is protected from suit in the Eleventh Circuit (Florida, Georgia and Alabama), it may not matter if the business also operates in a circuit where websites have been determined to be within the purview of the ADA, as a plaintiff can still bring suit in the more favorable forum.  Accordingly, for businesses that have a national footprint, this ruling will be of little solace. It is important to remember that businesses can also face liability under local and state disability laws for the inaccessibility of their websites. In the end, only the Supreme Court or Congress can provide the clarity businesses so desperately need.

[1]   No. 17-13467, 2021 WL 1289906 (11th Cir. April 7, 2021).

[2]  Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., 257 F. Supp. 3d 1340, 1345 (S.D. Fla. 2017).

[3]  Based upon the forceful dissent, it is possible that the Eleventh Circuit may rehear the case en banc, which means the entire court will consider the case and it will not be final until then.

[4]  Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC, 913 F.3d 898 (9th Cir. 2019), cert. denied,, ––– U.S. ––––, 140 S. Ct. 122, 205 L.Ed.2d 41 (2019).

[5]  Gil,257 F. Supp. 3d at1348-49.

[6]  Rendon v. Valleycrest Productions, Ltd., 294 F.3d 1279 (11th Cir. 2002),

[7]  Haynes v. Dunkin’ Donuts LLC, 741 Fed. App’x. 752, 753–54 (11th Cir. 2018).