Winn-Dixie Website Runs Afoul of Disability Law

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By Alexis Kramer

Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. violated the civil rights of a visually-impaired customer by failing to make its website compatible with screen-reading software, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida has ruled ( Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. , 2017 BL 199998, S.D. Fla., No. 16-23020-Civ-Scola, entered on docket 6/13/17 ).The decision is the first post-trial ruling that an inaccessible website integrated with a bricks-and-mortar store violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, disabilities law attorneys told Bloomberg BNA June 15.

Businesses covered under the ADA, including grocery stores, hotels and libraries, generally have a significant web presence, Daniel Goldstein, a partner at Brown Goldstein Levy in Baltimore, said. The ruling makes clear that for those entities, accessibility has to cover all of their services—including websites, he said.

Judge Robert N. Scola ruled, in an opinion signed June 12 and filed June 13, that the grocery chain violated Title III of the ADA because plaintiff Juan Carlos Gil couldn’t access digital coupons or refill prescriptions online.

Winn-Dixie will appeal the judgment, the company’s vice president of corporate and consumer affairs Anna Kelly said in an emailed statement.

“While we are sensitive to the needs of the visually impaired and are currently improving our website, the legal position regarding website standards are unclear and we believe improvement can be achieved through customer dialogue, rather than through the courts,” Kelly said.

More Activity Coming

Bloomberg Law data show that 81 cases under the ADA have been filed since January against companies—including New York & Company Inc., The Cheesecake Factory, and Costco Wholesale Corp.—for allegedly failing to make their websites accessible to blind people.

The Gil decision will “embolden plaintiffs to continue to file the rampant amount of website accessibility cases we’ve been seeing and to use it as further ammunition to press for settlements of those cases,” Joshua A. Stein, a member of the firm at Epstein Becker & Green PC in New York, said. “If your website has a legitimate connection to a brick-and-mortar location, you’re facing more of an uphill battle now.”

Goldstein said the case will spur more voluntary actions from businesses to make their websites accessible. “Every time one of these cases comes down, it stimulates more businesses to do the right thing,” he said.

‘Heavily Integrated’

Title III of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a), prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of public accommodations.

The court declined to rule whether Winn-Dixie’s website qualified as a public accommodation itself, an issue that courts have split on. But the court said it need not decide because the website was “heavily integrated” with Winn-Dixie’s physical stores and operated as a “gateway” to those locations.

The court said that the services Winn-Dixie’s website offered are “undoubtedly” services and accommodations offered by the company’s physical store locations. The website’s services are “especially important for visually impaired individuals since it is difficult, if not impossible, for such individuals to use paper coupons found in newspapers or in the grocery stores, to locate the physical stores by other means, and to physically go to a pharmacy location in order to fill prescriptions,” the court said.

The court ordered Winn-Dixie to ensure its website is accessible to people with disabilities, in conformance with the web content accessibility guidelines set out by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Entin & Della Fera represented Gil. Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP represented Winn-Dixie.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexis Kramer in Washington at aKramer@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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