Last April, we issued an alert regarding a California Superior Court’s summary judgment ruling against a retailer on claims that its website violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. In that Alert we noted that while the US Department of Justice had yet to issue regulations governing website accessibility (something that is not expected to happen until next year), this was not preventing courts from finding retailer websites in violation of the ADA. In fact, just last week, a federal district court in the Southern District of Florida continued this trend.
The grocery retail chain Winn-Dixie Stores just lost a bench trial on ADA website accessibility claims brought by a legally blind plaintiff. A federal district judge in the Southern District of Florida concluded that Winn Dixie’s website violated the ADA because it “is inaccessible to visually impaired individuals who must use screen reader software” (Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.). While it is worth bearing in mind that: (a) the DOJ has yet to issue regulations outlining what companies are required to do to ensure that their ecommerce websites are compliant with the ADA; and (b) this is just the judgment of one federal district court that is not binding on courts in other jurisdictions, this case provides further insight into how courts will determine whether a website is subject to the ADA. Moreover, we believe that the judgment shows that there continues to be a steady movement towards requiring websites to meet the success criteria of the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), version 2.0.
In the Winn-Dixie case, the court cited the close integration of the grocery chain’s website and its function as a “gateway to the physical store locations” as a basis for applying the ADA. In contrast to the model of many retailers, the Winn-Dixie website does not offer goods for sale, but rather provides information, including coupons and store locations, and allows customers to manage pharmacy prescriptions online. The plaintiff, a legally blind individual who is heavily reliant on screen-reader software, asserted that his inability to access these online benefits impeded his store experience. The court agreed that the website’s inaccessibility amounted to denial of the “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations that Winn-Dixie offers to its sighted customers.” Accordingly, the court issued an injunction requiring Winn-Dixie to comply with WCAG 2.0 standards, and ordered briefing regarding whether to award attorney fees.
This judgment follows the trend we previously identified – namely, that there is a move towards requiring websites to meet the WCAG 2.0 success criteria. It is interesting to note that the district court in this case did not specify in its order whether Winn-Dixie is required to meet the WCAG 2.0 Level AA criteria (which are more comprehensive and therefore more difficult to achieve) or whether Level A compliance would be sufficient. Because we continue to see plaintiffs firms push for Level AA compliance (or substantial compliance) in their demands, and the DOJ rulemaking process strongly suggests that the regulations will require Level AA or “Level AA lite,” we think companies are well advised to proactively move in that direction. Given the facts of the Winn-Dixie case, and the number of these cases being brought on behalf of blind individuals, ensuring compatibility with screen reader software is definitely recommended.