Why Federal Courts Think Your Website May Be Like Your Real Estate

We have previously discussed what a business should do when it’s hit with a lawsuit over alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), but can a retail tenant be sued only for ADA violations at its physical store?  Based on the more recent type of ADA cases being filed in federal courts, the answer is no – the tenant’s website can also be the source of violations.  Recently, courts in the federal Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (which includes Florida) have begun to find that websites may be extensions of a business’s physical place of “public accommodation,” meaning that websites must also be ADA-compliant. This has resulted in a significant uptick in ADA lawsuits regarding the accessibility of a website and new liability for retailers.

The most recent cases finding retailers liable for ADA violations on their websites required a connection between a physical retail store and the store’s website.  For example, in a recent lawsuit against Winn-Dixie, a court found that Winn-Dixie’s website is heavily integrated with, and in many ways operates as a gateway to, Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations, and was sufficiently connected to the grocery chain’s physical stores as to fall within the definition of public accommodation.  The court ruled that this failure of the website to be accessible denied the plaintiff equal access to the services, privileges, and advantages of Winn-Dixie’s physical stores and pharmacies.

Further adding to the confusion is that there are not yet federal, state or regulatory guidelines to determine whether or not a website is ADA-compliant and there are no formally published regulations.  There are, however, consultants that review websites for ADA compliance.  Those firms assist in determining whether a website complies with guidelines permitting visually-impaired, hearing-impaired, and physically-impaired individuals to interact with a website.  Accordingly, in addition to making their physical location ADA compliant, retailers need to make certain that if their websites are heavily integrated with their physical locations that their websites are ADA compliant.

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