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11th Circuit Vacates Gil v. Winn-Dixie Decision on Appeal: What Does it Mean?

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has overturned the 2017 Gil v. Winn-Dixie decision, stating:

United States Capitol building

“Absent congressional action that broadens the definition of “places of public accommodation” to include websites, we cannot extend ADA liability to the facts presented to us here, where there is no barrier to the access demanded by the statute.”

The practical effect of the Eleventh Circuit’s decision is it sets the precedent, generally, that web accessibility (or lack thereof) does not give rise to a potential violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the 11th Circuit – for federal courts located in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

This does not have a binding effect in state courts in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

Moreover, this does not bind federal or state courts anywhere else in the United States. For example, federal and state courts in New York and California are free to ignore the 11th Circuit’s decision.

Additionally, this does not affect the ability of entities located in Alabama, Florida, or Georgia to be sued elsewhere, assuming plaintiff standing is met.

Background

Gil v. Winn-Dixie is the first federal website accessibility case to go to trial and have a decision rendered on the merits.

The facts in the case are, generally, that the plaintiff, who is legally blind, claims he attempted to access Winn-Dixie’s website and the content was not fully accessible to him.

The trial was held in the United States District Court Southern District of Florida and resulted in a decision for the plaintiff.  The District Court found that 1) the website had accessibility issues and 2) because of this Winn-Dixie violated the ADA.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed this decision, finding (1) there is no violation of the ADA because a website is not a place of public accommodation, and (2) the website did not prevent access to the goods, services, privileges, or advantages of Winn-Dixie’s physical locations.

Commentary

This decision is noteworthy in that it marks one of the few times the court did not liberally construe the ADA beyond its plain language.

Previous court decisions in the U.S. have overwhelmingly crafted arguments based on the spirit of the law, but not legal precedent.

There is a reason both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Congress are under pressure to publish formal guidance for digital accessibility (e.g., websites and mobile apps) and the reason is that there is no current formal legal precedent in the U.S. for private entities, generally.

Rather, the informal stance from U.S. authorities has been flexibility.

DOJ Assistant Attorney General, Stephen E. Boyd, stated in a letter to Congress that entities:

“Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements.”

Although notable, the Eleventh Circuit’s decision alone will have minimal impact on web accessibility litigation.  In other words, demand letters will still be sent out and lawsuits will still be filed.

The one difference is that there will be significantly fewer web accessibility lawsuits filed in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia federal courts.

However, on a broader scale, the Eleventh Circuit’s decision does intensify the legal pressure for either the Supreme Court, DOJ, or Congress to provide clear guidance on digital accessibility.

Published by Kris Rivenburgh, Chief Accessibility & Legal Officer at eSSENTIAL Accessibility

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