Long before the internet existed, scientists anticipated the creation of a worldwide network of information. But what they didn’t see coming was the legal effects that would come from making that information available to everyone. And what the legal system cannot agree on is how to interpret what few laws exist on the matter. Web accessibility litigation continues to grow year after year. Here, we’ll showcase a couple of accessibility lawsuits and how they’ve shaped the future of the web.
According to ADA.gov, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability in the activities of places of public accommodations”. This includes businesses such as restaurants, recreation facilities, and doctors’ offices. It also includes places like factories or office buildings.
Gil vs. Winn-Dixie
In 2017, the first web accessibility lawsuit went to a federal trial. This is the case of Juan Carlos Gil and the supermarket chain Winn-Dixie.
Gil is blind, has cerebral palsy, and uses a wheelchair. Gil uses a computer with the aid of a screen reader. Screen readers are a form of assistive technology. They allow those who are blind or visually impaired to read their computer screens with text-to-speech or braille.
Gil sued the retailer because screen readers wouldn’t work on their website.
Customers who accessed the store’s physical location could buy groceries and pick up prescriptions. The website allowed patrons to refill prescriptions for pickup. It also allowed them to link online coupons to their store cards for use in the physical store.
Because the website was not set up for screen readers, Gil argued he couldn’t order his prescriptions or link coupons to his store card like everyone else.
Lawyers for Winn-Dixie argued that Gil was able to use the physical stores for years before he knew the website existed. They claimed he was not missing out on using their services.
According to the National Law Review, on June 12, 2017, a federal district court ruled in Gils’ favor saying that a website that is “integrated with physical store locations” and “operates as a gateway to the physical store locations constitutes a service of a public accommodation covered by the ADA.”
In 2021, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the opposite direction in the Gil v. Winn-Dixie case. According to the Southeast ADA Center, the court does not see websites as a “place of public accommodation”. They said the website does not create an “intangible barrier” and Gil’s inability to access the website does not violate Title III of the ADA.
Robles vs. Domino’s Pizza, LLC
Another high-profile accessibility case is that of Guillermo Robles versus Domino’s Pizza, LLC. In 2019, Robles claimed that Domino’s did not follow the ADA because their website and app were not accessible to screen readers.
Robles has a visual impairment and, like Gil, uses a screen reader to access the internet. Robles tried to order pizza using the Domino’s website and app on many occasions. Yet, because Domino’s website and app were not set up to allow for this functionality, Robles could not order the pizza.
The District Court found that the ADA did apply to the website and app. But, the court also found that Domino’s did not have fair notice to correct the issue before the case went before the courts. They dismissed the case. Robles appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and it ruled the case should proceed. Domino’s then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court making this the first accessibility case to reach this level of the judicial system.
The web accessibility world held its collective breath as it was virtually on the cusp of a major judicial decision on web accessibility that could forever shape the future of the world wide web.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. This means that the previous ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stood up. Domino’s will have to fight Robles’ accessibility claims in court.
Attorneys for Domino’s argues that the ADA does not apply to online platforms that were not in place in 1990. They say that no clear laws exist for how to make these systems accessible.
Robles’ attorneys argue that without these features, those with disabilities are being excluded from commerce and other online services.
Up to Interpretation
To many, the definition of “places of public accommodations” refers to brick and mortar “places”. Yet as we can see, there are so many interpretations. Others see that company websites are an extension of these “places” and must accommodate those with disabilities.
The verbiage in the law is not clear-cut. Courts must decide the direction we go. But what if they determine a website to be out of compliance? Who decides what the requirements are to make the website compliant?
States Playing a Part
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is in California and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is in Atlanta. In reviewing accessibility lawsuit statistics, most cases occur in only a handful of states. New York and California are tops for these types of cases and statistics show they tend to rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Politics, anyone?
While most of these lawsuits up to this point have been around the ADA, California websites must now also adhere to the Unruh Civil Rights Act. The Unruh Act includes virtual businesses without a brick-n-mortar location.
So, be mindful if your website does business in states affected by these laws. You could be subject to lawsuits around them. And if we’ve learned anything about accessibility laws in the technology industry, there’s a precedent here. When new laws are passed in New York, California, or Florida, they’re contagious. Chances are it’s only a matter of time before those laws get adopted in other states.
The Debate Rages On
Few web accessibility cases actually reach the courtroom as most receive demand letters or get settled out of court. There are few cases on which to set precedence. Utility organizations get little guidance and the debate rages on.
We always recommend building your utility website with accessibility in mind and taking a socially responsible approach.