Websites held not to be public accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act



The Eleventh Circuit held that the public accommodation provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title III, do not apply to websites but only to physical stores. Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., 993 F.3d 1266 (11th Cir. 2021). The court found the language in the statute to be unambiguous.


The court explained that the statutory definition "describes twelve types of locations that are public accommodations. All of these listed types of locations are tangible, physical places. No intangible places or spaces, such as websites, are listed. Thus, we conclude that, pursuant to the plain language of Title III of the ADA, public accommodations are limited to actual, physical places. Necessarily then, we hold that websites are not a place of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA. Therefore, Gil’s inability to access and communicate with the website itself is not a violation of Title III."


The court noted disagreement among the Circuit courts on this question. Footnote 13 says:


"In so holding, we join several of our sister circuits. The Third Circuit held that “[t]the plain meaning of Title III is that a public accommodation is a place.” Ford v. Schering-Plough Corp., 145 F.3d 601, 612 (3d Cir. 1998). Similarly, the Sixth Circuit held that “the plaintiffs’ argument that the prohibitions of Title III are not solely limited to ‘places’ of public accommodation contravenes the plain language of the statute.” Stoutenborough v. Nat’l Football League, Inc., 59 F.3d 580, 583 (6th Cir. 1995). Specifically, the hearing-impaired plaintiffs in Stoutenborough challenged the National Football League’s “blackout rule,” which prohibited live broadcast of home football games when the games were not sold out, leaving live radio broadcast as the only alternative. Id. at 582. The court held that “[a]lthough a [football] game is played in a ‘place of public accommodation’ and may be viewed on television in another ‘place of public accommodation,’ ” the “service” of a televised broadcast “does not involve a ‘place of accommodation.” Id.; see also Parker v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 121 F.3d 1006, 1010 (6th Cir. 1997) (“As is evident by § 12187(7), a public accommodation is a physical place.”). The Ninth Circuit has also held that under the principle of noscitur a sociis, “place of public accommodation” should be interpreted within the context of the accompanying words, which are all “actual, physical places where goods or services are open to the public, and places where the public gets those goods or services.” Weyer v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 198 F.3d 1104, 1114 (9th Cir. 2000).

We note, however, that, other circuits have disagreed. The First Circuit has determined that that the phrase “public accommodation” “is not limited to actual physical structures.” Carparts Distrib. Ctr., Inc. v. Auto. Wholesaler’s Ass’n of New England, Inc., 37 F.3d 12, 19 (1st Cir. 1994). And in Doe v. Mut. of Omaha Ins. Co., 179 F.3d 557, 559 (7th Cir. 1999), the Seventh Circuit cited Carparts approvingly, writing that “[t]he core meaning of [the public accommodation] provision, plainly enough, is that the owner or operator of a store, hotel, restaurant, dentist’s office, travel agency, theater, Web site, or other facility (whether in physical space or in electronic space) ... that is open to the public cannot exclude disabled persons.”


A dissenting opinion argued that the website offers "in-store prescription and coupon benefits only by accessing Winn-Dixie's website" and that meant that customer with disabilities were not being provided equal accommodations in the physical stores because visually-impaired customers cannot access the website. In addition, stores are required to provide "auxiliar services" when needed to prove "full and equal enjoyment" of places of public accommodation and the store failed to do this "when it refused to make its website compatible with screen-reading technology." The majority opinion rejected these arguments because customers could request these benefits inside the stores. Importantly, the dissenting opinion did not argue that the website itself was a place of public accommodation but that access to goods and services in the physical stores were unequal because of the design of the website.