Recently, a federal district court held in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90204 (S.D. Fla. June 12, 2017), that a grocery store’s website must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and had failed to do so by not meeting certain accessibility standards.

Winn-Dixie is a grocery store that operates in several Southern states. The store’s website offered various services to enhance the shopping experience in the store’s physical locations, including store locator services, prescription drug services, and coupon services. Because of the close connection between the website and the store, the court found that the website was an extension of the brick-and-mortar store and, therefore, a place of public accommodation requiring compliance with the ADA. The ADA requires places of public accommodations to make reasonable and readily achievable modifications so that everyone has full and equal enjoyment of its goods, services, facilities, privileges, or advantages.

The plaintiff, an individual with a visual impairment, uses screen reader software in order to access the internet. The complaint alleged that plaintiff’s software did not integrate with the website and also that the website itself did not have any functions to allow a visually impaired person to use it. The complaint lists specific Programming Error Types (“PETs”) and Programming Alert Error Types (“PATs”) that made the website inaccessible. Many of the PETs and PATs deal with issues within the website’s layout, coding, and text that prevent a screen reader from being able to read it properly. Additionally, the website did not provide an accessibility notice (a link that explains when the website will likely become available to people with disabilities). Simply put, the plaintiff alleged that the website provided no way for a person with a visual impairment to use the website in a meaningful way.

What does this mean for employers?

The Gil case shows that companies subject to the ADA because they operate physical places of public accommodation may be required to make their websites ADA compliant. If your website is closely tied to your brick-and-mortar business and helps individuals gain access to your business, it may be prudent to ensure that your website is ADA compliant. This not only allows all customers, regardless of disability, to access your website, but it can also help avoid a lawsuit over the accessibility of your website.

Additionally, companies should ensure that all third party websites integrated onto the business websites are similarly compliant. The court held that Winn-Dixie has a legal obligation to require third party websites integrated onto the Winn-Dixie website (including Google and American Express) to be accessible if they choose to operate within the Winn-Dixie website. This means that the company who operates the website is responsible for making sure that those third parties that interface with the website have accessible websites.

There is no federal organization that mandates requirements for website accessibility. However, the court in Gil relied on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) standards in order to determine if a website is accessible. The court also analyzed the cost to make the website compliant. The expert that testified on website accessibility stated that most of the issues that prevented access to the Winn-Dixie website could be fixed by simple modifications.

We recommend compliance with the latest WCAG and also checking for screen reader program accessibility. Companies should test their websites using a popular screen reader software like JAWS or NVDA. The Gil court found that if the website is compatible with a popular screen reader program (specifically, JAWS or NVDA), but not accessible with lesser used programs, the website is likely still compliant. Any issues that bar access when using a lesser used program, but not when using a more popular program, would likely need to be resolved by the screen reader program, not the website company.

If you have questions about how this ruling might affect your company, including whether your company is a place of public accommodation or whether your website is considered to be an extension of your company, please contact the Fraser Stryker Labor & Employment Practice Group for further information and personal assistance.

This article is provided to Fraser Stryker’s clients pursuant to the attorney-client privilege. This information is, however, for general applicability and is not intended to be and should not be construed as legal advice on any specific facts or circumstances.

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