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The 2017 ruling in the Gil vs. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc. trial was a monumental shift in the world of digital accessibility.

For people with disabilities who encounter unequal accessibility in businesses, the only way forward is through the courthouse door. Thanks to federal law and enforcement, that courthouse door and facility will fully accommodate their disability, but that same compliance oversight doesn’t exist for private organizations.

Who Enforces Title III of the ADA?

For example, Title I of The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) of 1990 provides enforcement through the  U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) and Civil Rights Center (CRC) police and enforce Title II. 

But what bureau or agency enforces Title III, which focuses on accessibility among private businesses with public accommodations? Well, none. Remediation is through complaints through the courts. In fact, when addressing ADA enforcement and investigation the DOL simply points the finger at the U.S. Department of Justice.

This has meant that much of ADA compliance has looked to lawsuits, especially those against large corporations, for guidance on how the ADA applies and what standards the DOJ expects. This is especially true in the case of web accessibility, which wasn’t taken into account in the 1990 federal law. Here’s what the 2017 ruling in the Gil vs. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc. trial means for you.

The Gil v. Winn Dixie Lawsuit and What it Means For You

Juan Carlos Gil, a Florida resident who is legally blind and has cerebral palsy, sued Winn Dixie in June 2016 as one of 70 businesses he alleged were in violation of the ADA because their websites failed to offer adequate disability accessibility browsing accommodations.

In Winn Dixie’s case, Gil alleged his screen reader did not function with the supermarket chain’s website and filed an ADA complaint in the Southern District of Florida. He visited the supermarket’s site to refill his prescriptions and found that 90% of the tabs didn’t function with his assistive tools. He claimed accessibility was vital in the prescription refilling process so he would not have to verbally disclose his private medical information.

Despite being more than 25 years after the passage of the ADA, Gil’s lawsuit is considered the first trial under the ADA about the accessibility of a public accommodation website and helped pave the way for multiple other lawsuits like it.

The lawsuit went to a two-day bench trial in June 2017 where Gil, a web accessibility expert, and a corporate representative from Winn Dixie testified. Winn Dixie attempted to avoid a trial by arguing its website was not a “public accommodation” which was rejected by U.S. District Judge Robert Scola.

Scola ultimately favored Gil in his ruling, holding that Winn Dixie’s website and physical store locations were so integrated that the site was subject to ADA compliance. The ruling required the supermarket to update its website and awarded Gil with legal costs.

In April 2021, Scola’s ruling was overturned following a successful appeal by Winn Dixie. In its decision, the Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit held that “a website was not a public accommodation”. Following the appeal, Gil filed a Petition for Rehearing  en banc, in May 2021,arguing that the Appeals Court deviated from its own precedent. 

As a result, the Court recalled its decision in December 2021 and held that Winn Dixie’s appeal was moot as well as the district court’s ruling. The Court pointing to the fact  that a three-year injunction issued by the district court had expired as the trial extended into its sixth year.

Winn Dixie subsequently requested its own rehearing by a full panel of judges to reconsider its decision. That request was flat-out denied by the Court on March 2, 2022, potentially ending what was considered the most-watched digital accessibility lawsuit.

The Aftermath of Gil vs. Winn Dixie and the Future of Digital Accessibility

This case resulted in no clear winner or loser. While digital accessibility advocates can no longer point to Judge Scola’s decision for precedent, the six-year-long trial sends a stern message to businesses about the costs they face if they do not settle such lawsuits.

Legal watchdogs expected to finally add clarity to the ADA and its relation to web accessibility, and the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling is ultimately punting the ball. However, the Ninth Circuit’s Robles vs. Domino’s Pizza decision in 2019 holds that business websites apply under the ADA. It appears Title III clarity remains ultimately unclear until the Supreme Court or Congress acts.

According to a recent study, website accessibility lawsuits under Title III of the ADA are continuing to increase. As more and more small and large businesses alike are facing lawsuits, there is a higher urgency to make sure websites are compliant.

The UserWay Scanning tool runs more tests than any other accessibility service available today and is the ideal way to scan your website for free to learn if it meets WCAG 2.1 conformance standards. There’s no risk to checking your website for accessibility violations, but there’s a lot to gain.