July 26, 2017

In a First, a Federal Court Finds Grocery Store's Website Fails to Comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

A recent case has organizations all over the U.S. concerned about litigation over website
image of a computer keyboard key displaying a handicapped symbol on top
accessibility.

In the first federal decision of its kind, a federal judge in Florida concluded that Winn-Dixie, a regional grocery store chain, was obligated to make its website accessible to a blind man, and that it failed to do so.

As a result, the court awarded the plaintiff his attorneys' fees and ordered the parties to agree on a compliance deadline by the end of this month.

I've written previously about the trend in demand letters and the uncertainty in the law regarding the applicability of the Americans With Disabilities Act to websites, applications and other online interfaces. 

Background

By way of background, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was first drafted in 1988 (and adopted in 1990), it is unlikely that even a single member of Congress contemplated that it could be applied to the Internet. The ADA (and specifically Title III) was applied to brick-and-mortar facilities and intended to ensure that people with disabilities could access and enjoy them. Common examples are wheelchair ramps and braille menus. In the quarter-century since, almost everything that was once only brick-and-mortar now has a presence on the Internet.

One of the greatest ADA questions of our day is whether the ADA applies to websites, apps, and other online interfaces. Only a few courts have addressed this issue, and the results have been mixed, and sometimes very fact-specific. Courts must decide whether a given website is a "public accommodation" and, if so, whether the website operator has made "reasonable modifications" to make the website available to people with disabilities. 

The ADA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and through private litigation. The DOJ is reviewing organizations' websites to determine whether they comply with the law’s access requirements. In addition, a number of plaintiffs' law firms across the country are filing lawsuits alleging that organizations' websites are in violation of the ADA. Internet companies, including Netflix, have settled cases that alleged their websites were inaccessible to people with disabilities.

There are currently no specific federal standards for websites under the ADA. Since 2010, the DOJ has been telling us that it is in the process of developing regulations for website accessibility, but those standards are not expected until 2018 or later. In the meantime, the DOJ says it expects organizations to make their websites accessible to the disabled. The DOJ has indicated that it considers the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) [2.0 Level AA] to be satisfactory for the time being (and perhaps these standards go further than legally necessary), and many organizations have been working towards compliance with those standards on the assumption that any future DOJ standards will be consistent with them (although there are no promises).

Why the Winn-Dixie Case Matters

The decision in Gil v. Winn Dixie is the first federal court opinion addressing the applicability of the ADA to the website of a brick-and-mortar retailer. While it is not binding throughout the U.S., it sets an important precedent. 

The court concluded that the ADA applied because Winn Dixie's website is “heavily integrated” with and serves as a “gateway” to its physical stores. That's an important consideration for brick-and-mortar retailers, who may want to re-evaluate accessibility in light of this recent development.


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