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Litigation News

Litigation News | 2021

Circuit Split Widens over ADA's Application to Websites

Elizabeth A. Kane


  • Court's decision highlights a division over whether websites are places of public accommodation and when auxiliary aids are necessary to prevent unequal treatment.
  • Absent SCOTUS intervention, congressional action is necessary to preserve the rights of disabled individuals and ensure equal access to the benefits of the internet.
Circuit Split Widens over ADA's Application to Websites
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A website inaccessible to the blind does not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a divided federal appellate court held. The decision highlights a circuit split on what qualifies as a place of public accommodation subject to the statute. Absent U.S. Supreme Court intervention, congressional action is necessary to preserve the rights of disabled individuals and ensure equal access to the benefits of the internet, according to ABA Litigation Section leaders.

Inaccessible Website Leads to Lawsuit

In Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., the legally blind plaintiff sued the defendant under Title III of the ADA because he was unable to access the store’s website to refill prescriptions online or use digital manufacturer coupons with his screen reader software, which vocalizes the content of webpages. Title III prohibits discrimination based on disability “in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” The plaintiff contended that the website was a place of public accommodation or, alternatively, that the website had a ‘sufficient nexus’ to the onsite pharmacies at the defendant’s physical stores, making the website subject to the ADA.

The district court entered judgment for the plaintiff. Although it did not determine whether the website was a place of public accommodation, the district court held the plaintiff alleged a sufficient nexus between the defendant’s website and its physical stores. Concluding the defendant had violated the ADA, the district court entered a permanent injunction that in part required the defendant “to make its website accessible to individuals with disabilities.”

Whether Alternative Means of Access Are Available Is Key

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court’s ruling. To determine if the defendant violated Title III, it undertook a two-step analysis. First, the appellate court looked to the plain language of the ADA and its implementing regulations. It noted that the ADA provides “an expansive list of physical locations” that are public accommodations which did not include websites but did include grocery stores, as did the regulations. Accordingly, the appeals court reasoned that websites are not places of public accommodation as defined by the statute.

Second, the Eleventh Circuit analyzed whether the website’s inaccessibility created a prohibited intangible barrier to accessing the defendant’s physical stores. It explained that the failure to provide reasonable auxiliary aids and services necessary to allow a disabled person equal access to the services of a physical store could, in certain circumstances, constitute intangible barriers violating the ADA.

However, the appeals court held that in this instance the lack of website accessibility, though inconvenient, was not an intangible barrier as “nothing prevent[ed] [the plaintiff] from shopping at the physical store.” The appellate court further observed that transactions “initiated on the website must be completed in-store: prescription pick-ups and redemption of coupons.” It concluded there was no violation as use of the website was not necessary to provide those services to the blind. In so holding, the appellate court clarified that there was no statutory or precedential basis for a “‘nexus’ standard, whereby a plaintiff only has to demonstrate that there is a ‘nexus’ between the service and the physical public accommodation.”

By contrast, the dissent would have held that the defendant violated the ADA by failing to provide the screen-reading technology necessary to create a comparable experience for visually-impaired customers. Though the dissent acknowledged that the ADA does not require the defendant to provide identical experiences for its disabled and non-disabled customers, it noted that the technology was necessary because the website provided the only means for customers to enjoy the time-saving benefits of ordering online.

The Eleventh Circuit joined the Third, Sixth, and Ninth Circuits in holding that places of public accommodation must be physical locations. The First, Second, and Seventh Circuits hold that places of public accommodation are not limited to physical structures and thus, can include websites, reasoning that limiting the ADA’s protections to physical locations contradicts legislative intent.

Accessibility Laws Lag Behind the Times

Litigation Section leaders agree that it is time for Congress to modernize the ADA. “There is simply no reason to exclude websites from the definition of public accommodations, given how much we all rely on the internet to conduct our daily lives. In some ways, the internet itself is a place of public accommodation,” concludes Dustin L. Crawford, Atlanta, GA, chair of the Employment Subcommittee of the Section’s Civil Rights Litigation Committee.

“Congress should probably step in to bring the statute into the 21st century,” offers the Honorable Judge Nancy F. Atlas, Houston, TX, cochair of the Section’s Access to Justice Committee. Governing agencies “should update the guidance and draw lines about the intersection between websites and the sale of goods to ensure sufficiency under the ADA,” she adds.

Other Section leaders echo this sentiment. “Some might find the result of this case unsettling, even if its legal logic is compelling, as it comes as at a time when many Americans have been forced to stay away from physical stores and rely on purchases through websites to fulfill their most basic needs,” ponders Wade S. Kolb III, Greenville, SC, cochair of the Section’s LGBT Law & Litigator Committee. “The decision highlights the fact that a law written over 30 years ago and updated over 12 years ago may be insufficient to meet the challenges of today, and the political branches may be wise to consider how the ADA can continue to fulfill its aims in a marketplace that increasingly occurs online,” Kolb concludes.


  • Anthony R. McClure, “Websites May Be Places of Public Accommodation Subject to the ADA,” Litigation News (Mar. 18, 2019).
  • Meredith Mays Espino, “Website Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities: The Why & How,” Bus. L. Today (Dec. 20, 2016).
  • Dara Valanejad, “Twenty-Five Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act: A Brief Look,” Commission on Law and Aging (Oct. 1, 2015).
  • Parker v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 121 F.3d 1006 (6th Cir. 1997).
  • Earll v. Ebay, 599 F. App’x 695 (9th Cir. 2015).
  • Nat’l Ass’n of the Deaf v. Netflix, Inc., 869 F. Supp. 2d 196 (D. Mass. 2012).
  • Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind v. Scribd, Inc., 97 F. Supp. 3d 565 (D. Vt. 2015).