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By:  Charles Kassir, Esquire

What accommodations must businesses apply to their websites under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? Well, it is not entirely clear.

In a recent ruling, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Alabama, Florida, and Georgia) held that websites are not places of public accommodation within the meaning of Title III of the ADA. In Gil v. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc., (Winn Dixie) the court held that websites are not within the ADA’s 12 types of tangible physical places, and it is the job of Congress, not courts, to set website accessibility standards. The decision conflicts with Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC, (Domino’s) in which the Ninth Circuit held that the “ADA applies to the services of a public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation.” Check out our November 2019 article “Is Your Website Accessible to Customers With Disabilities and Why Should You Care?” on the Domino’s decision. The ruling sets up a circuit split and tees up the issue for potential review in the United States Supreme Court.

Why Should Maryland Businesses Care?

Given the fast-paced advancement of web technology and the snail-paced advancement of law, businesses have struggled to comply with the ADA. Here are the statistics:

  • Over the past three years, plaintiffs across the country have filed more than 10,000 lawsuits against businesses based on allegations that a website lacks accessibility features.
  • In 2020, with more businesses making their services available online due to the pandemic, web accessibility lawsuits increased 23%.
  • New York, California, and Florida, combined, account for 90% of the 2020 cases.

Sure, Maryland is not a hotbed for these lawsuits—yet. Given the national attention of Winn Dixie and Domino’s, Maryland’s small and mid-sized businesses may see more of these suits. If Winn Dixie (or another similar suit) heads to the Supreme Court, rest assured that lawyers will be paying attention. Indeed, for Maryland’s entirely web-based businesses, there is a risk of being sued in any state in which they conduct business.

The Winn-Dixie Holdings

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit rejected plaintiff’s argument that websites are places of public accommodation within the meaning of the ADA.

  • The court first concluded that “[t]he statutory language in Title III of the ADA defining ‘public accommodation’ is unambiguous and clear. . . . No intangible places or spaces, such as websites, are listed. Thus, we conclude that, pursuant to the plain language of Title III of the ADA public accommodations are limited to actual, physical places.”

 

  • The court held that, to be in violation of Title III, “the inaccessibility of the website must serve as an intangible barrier” to a plaintiff’s ability to communicate with the physical store, which results in plaintiff being excluded, denied services, segregated, or otherwise treated differently from other individuals in physical stores.

What does the future hold?

If the political branches of government take direction from the Winn-Dixie court, Congress may amend the ADA to include websites. As it stands, however, an appeal to the Supreme Court may be the next step in a change to website accommodation law under the ADA. In Maryland, businesses should keep a close eye on these potential changes.

Stay tuned: PK Law Labor and Employment Attorneys are closely monitoring court decisions and possible legislation on the website accessibility issue. Click HERE to contact a PK Law Labor and Employment Attorney or contact information@pklaw.com.

Charles Kassir is an Associate in the firm’s Labor and Employment Group.  He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in 2019. While in law school, Charlie served as Executive Articles Editor of the Maryland Law Review and was a Member of the Moot Court Board.  After graduating from law school, Charles clerked for the Honorable Joseph M. Getty of the Court of Appeals of Maryland.  He can be reached at 410-740-3148 or ckassir@pklaw.com.

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