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Eleventh Circuit Holds Websites Not Places Of Public Accommodation Under Americans With Disabilities Act

On April 7, 2021, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rendered its opinion in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., reversing the trial court’s decision against Winn-Dixie, holding that websites are not places of public accommodation under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and an inaccessible website is not necessarily equal to the denial of goods or services.  See Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., No. 17-13467 (11th Cir. Apr. 7, 2021).

The Eleventh Circuit explained that the statutory definition of “public accommodation” includes only “tangible, physical places” which do not include intangible places or spaces, such as websites.  The Court explained that it cannot judicially amend Title III’s definition to include websites, because, under the separation of powers doctrine, this must be left to Congress.

The Eleventh Circuit directly rejected the “nexus” standard that has been used by many other courts throughout the country. Under this standard, courts have held that, even though websites are not directly included in the definition of places of public accommodation, they can be treated as part of the physical place of public accommodation if there is a strong nexus between the website and the physical store.

The Eleventh Circuit determined the ADA requires that disabled patrons be given equal access to those goods and services, but not necessarily in the identical way as non-disabled patrons. It noted that the statutory requirement to provide auxiliary aids and services permits equivalent but not identical access. The Court found significant that the plaintiff had filled prescriptions and used paper coupons in the store for many years without difficulty. The Court noted that he could continue to do so in the store in the same way despite the website’s alternative, and often faster, ways to refill prescriptions and use online coupons.

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is significant for businesses that operate fully online businesses because it holds that a website itself is not a place of public accommodation to which the ADA applies. Although the Eleventh Circuit has made this decision, it is unclear if other circuits will follow or if states will develop their own disability statutes to address online businesses operating in their state. Online businesses should determine the interplay between federal and state disability laws to determine the best course of action to make sure they are compliant with the ADA.