Gil v. Winn-Dixie: A Landmark Ruling is Reversed
On April 7, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., a landmark case for web accessibility. Read on to learn more about the original case, the disappointing appellate opinion, and what this implies for the future of web accessibility.
A bit of background
In 2016, Juan Carlos Gil, a blind man, filed suit against Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., a regional grocery store chain in Florida. Gil was a frequent Winn-Dixie customer but could not access Winn-Dixie’s website using screen reader software, which prevented him from finding coupons, locating nearby stores, and refilling prescriptions online.
The case went to trial in 2017, and Judge Robert Scola of the Southern District of Florida ruled that the inaccessible website violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Judge Scola interpreted the ADA broadly and reasoned that the services offered on Winn-Dixie’s website, such as the online pharmacy management system, the ability to find store locations, and the opportunity to access digital coupons, provided a sufficient nexus to the physical stores. Though a website might not be a physical location, the inability to use the website meant blind customers did not have full access to the store’s offerings.
“The Court need not decide whether Winn-Dixie’s website is a public accommodation in and of itself, because the factual findings demonstrated that the website is heavily integrated with Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations and operates as a gateway to the physical store locations,” Judge Scola wrote. “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.’”
In addition, the trial court opinion noted that the website’s offerings were critical to blind and low vision patrons since it was difficult, if not impossible, for them to use paper coupons, locate physical stores by other means, and physically go to pharmacy locations to fill prescriptions.
To permit full and equal access, the trial court issued an injunction requiring Winn-Dixie to make its website accessible under the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA. The case was the first web accessibility lawsuit to go to trial and a landmark ruling for disability rights.
Unfortunately, instead of choosing to provide equal access for people with disabilities, Winn-Dixie denied it had violated the ADA and appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit.
Since the ADA passed in 1990 before the Internet boom, many courts have interpreted the statute as Judge Scola did, considering technological innovations and avoiding an overly literal reading of the text. However, not all courts agree.
One of the most pertinent questions of the case is whether Winn-Dixie’s website is a “place of public accommodation” under Title III of the ADA. Title III prohibits disability discrimination in places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, and recreation facilities.
Though Winn-Dixie admitted that its physical stores were places of public accommodation subject to Title III, the grocery chain denied that its website was similarly covered. Winn-Dixie argued that the ADA’s “public accommodation” provision did not apply to its website because it is not a physical location and lacks a sufficient nexus to its stores since it provides no online purchasing capabilities.
After Winn-Dixie appealed the decision, a more conservative bench heard the case. On April 7, 2021, the 11th Circuit reversed in a 2-1 ruling the trial court’s decision that Winn-Dixie’s website violated the ADA.
A narrow interpretation of the ADA
The new opinion, written by U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch, is a tremendous disappointment for the disability rights movement. “The opinion ignores the language and intent of the ADA, the rights of disabled people, and the reality of the 21st century digital world,” attorney Lainey Feingold writes in her blog. “The opinion cares nothing about the privacy, independence, or convenience of disabled people.”
Indeed, the appellate opinion focuses on the fact that although Winn-Dixie’s website provided inaccessible services and posed gross inconveniences for blind customers, Gil had still managed to use the store’s physical locations. “Although Gil was not always happy with the speed or privacy of the service he received at the pharmacy,” Judge Branch wrote in the majority opinion, “nothing prevented Gil from refilling his prescriptions during his time as a Winn-Dixie customer.”
Judge Branch’s opinion follows her trend of discriminatory decisions in recent years, including her ruling on two voting rights cases affecting Black people in Alabama and another disability rights case in Florida.
In the appellate court’s narrow ruling, a Title III violation must completely deny access to the goods and services of a public accommodation, rather than just affect access, as Ken Nakata explains in Converge Accessibility. The majority opinion rejected the nexus standard and held that Winn-Dixie’s website did not constitute an “intangible barrier” to Gil’s ability to access and enjoy fully and equally “the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of” the physical store.
As Nakata describes, for the 11th Circuit to have ruled in Gil’s favor, Winn-Dixie’s website would have to be inaccessible and:
- Require pharmacy customers to use the online platform to order and pick up prescriptions.
- Be the only platform offering coupons.
- Be the only place to find store locations.
In dissent, Circuit Judge Jill Pryor argued that the majority had misinterpreted the scope and intent of the ADA’s requirements, with which we at 3Play Media agree.
“[The majority’s] argument is doubly flawed,” Judge Pryor wrote in her dissent. “Its premise – that, for ADA purposes, the relevant services, privileges, and advantages offered by Winn-Dixie were limited to “filling prescriptions and using coupons” – is wrong. And even if that premise were correct, the majority opinion’s conclusion does not follow from it. For even if the majority is correct that the relevant services, privileges, or advantages were “filling prescriptions and using coupons,” Gil was not “able to enjoy fully and equally [those] services,” because he could enjoy only different – and markedly inferior – versions of them.”
What does this all mean for the future of web accessibility?
In conclusion of her dissent, Judge Pryor wrote, “I fear the majority opinion’s errors will have widespread consequences… 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.”
While the 11th Circuit’s decision is a tremendous loss and disappointment, it does not clarify any precedent for the state of web accessibility. Yet, neither does the ADA, which points to a larger issue that a formal precedent needs to be established—otherwise, confusion over the ADA will continue to deepen. However, disability rights lawyers still point towards an increasingly accessible future, one in which Judge Pryor’s fears do not come to fruition.
“As disappointing as this opinion is,” Lainey Feingold writes, “it’s important to keep it in perspective.” The opinion applies only to 11th Circuit courts, which means only federal courts in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia are directly affected. “Unless you are planning a separate website in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida,” Feingold writes, “and your only goal is not getting sued in federal court… inclusive design should still be your guiding star, WCAG 2.1 AA your development standard, and usability testing your best practice, all with the involvement of disabled people at every turn.”
Also of note, Gil filed on April 15 a Petition for Rehearing en banc, in which he argues that the case is of exceptional importance and that the panel deviated from prior 11th Circuit precedent. This case is not over, and Gil’s attorneys have stated they are prepared to seek U.S. Supreme Court review of the decision.
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