Yesterday, on June 13, Judge Robert Scola of the Southern District of Florida issued his opinion on website accessibility in Gil v. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc. Case No. 1:16-cv-23020 (SD Fla. June 13, 2017) He conducted a two day trial, but the outcome was inevitable after his earlier decision denying a motion to dismiss. In that decision Judge Scola adopted, in essence, the reasoning of Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind v. Target Corp., 452 F.Supp.2d 946 (N.D. Cal. 2006). Target held that if a website had a sufficient nexus with a physical place of business then it was covered by the ADA as a service of that public accommodation. This sidestepped the more theoretical question of whether a stand alone website is a public accommodation. It appears to have been undisputed that the Winn-Dixie website offered services related to its brick and mortar stores, so the trial in which evidence of that fact was put in the record was really just a formality.
What’s next? This is still only the opinion of a single federal district judge, and he declined to rule specifically on just what it means to have an accessible website. Based on a review of the pre-trial stipulations and Winn-Dixie’s determined defense to this point an appeal seems likely. If so, it will give the Eleventh Circuit a chance to rule on the Target theory for applying the ADA to the internet in the most definitive way and to say something about the ADA and websites not related to physical public accommodations. No matter how the prospective appeal turns out the decision will be critical for business.
It also puts the Trump Department of Justice to the test. In the waning days of President Obama’s term the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in support of the plaintiff in the Winn-Dixie case. Since the appointment of William Sessions as Attorney General it has been widely speculated that DOJ will become less interested in expansive readings of civil rights statutes. If DOJ decides to pull its support for the plaintiff, or even just to remain silent, advocates of an accessible internet will lose a critical ally. Short of an act of Congress DOJ regulations are the most authoritative way the ADA could be applied to the internet. Those regulations seem to be stalled, and a lack of interest in this case may indicate that further movement is unlikely. That in turn will leave businesses with no clear guidance on what the ADA requires, or even if it requires anything at all.
We’ve moved from scattered decisions at the earliest stages of a lawsuit to a judgment after trial that is perfectly positioned for an appeal that will give some definition to the idea of internet accessibility. Stay tuned.