In 2017, Juan Carlos Gil sued the grocery store chain Winn-Dixie. Gil is a blind man, and he was unable to use parts of Winn-Dixie’s website. The judge sided with Juan Carlos Gil. He decided that Winn-Dixie had violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since then, many more website accessibility lawsuits have been filed. In response, Congress sent a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ). The letter asked the DOJ to provide help understanding Title III and how it applies to websites. The DOJ has decided that Title III does apply to websites.
After a recent surge of website accessibility lawsuits, 103 members of Congress, led by Ted Budd (R-NC), sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The letter implored the DOJ to provide clarity and guidance with regard to website accessibility under the ADA’s Title III. The Department of Justice has now responded, affirming that the ADA applies to websites, as stated in the DOJ’s interpretation of the ADA over 20 years ago.
A Short History of Website Accessibility Lawsuits
The first website accessibility trial in the history of the ADA took place in Florida in 2017. The case involved grocery store chain Winn-Dixie, and Juan Carlos Gil, who is blind. Gil uses screen reading software, and he stated that he was unable to find store locations, order prescriptions, or download coupons.
Federal District Court Judge Robert Scola ruled that Winn-Dixie had violated Title III of the ADA by not having an accessible website. While this decision wasn’t made on a federal level, it was still largely significant for website accessibility. It not only marked the first ruling that a public accommodation violated Title III with an inaccessible website, but it also made the prospect of future violation rulings more possible.
After this historic ruling, a surge of website accessibility lawsuits came to the forefront. Public accommodations in every sector of business were being sued, all on the grounds that their websites are not accessible, and therefore violate the ADA. In 2017, there were at least 814 federal suits on ADA violations, and almost 350 in January and February of 2018 alone.
The DOJ’s Affirmation That the ADA Applies to Websites
This rise in lawsuits is what prompted Congress to take action, citing “the absence of statutory, regulatory, or other controlling language on this issue,” and the fact that there are no requirements these complaints have to meet” in their letter. It was their hope that the DOJ would issue some kind of regulation on filing complaints or lawsuits against inaccessible websites, especially as the department had stopped working on accessibility standards for public accommodations websites at the end of 2017.
However, the Department of Justice decided that it would not issue any new regulations, confirming that the ADA applies to websites. In their response letter, issued on September 25, 2018, Assistant Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated the following:
“The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s title III requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities.”
The letter also reminded the members of Congress that “the absence of a specific regulation does not serve as a basis for noncompliance with a statute’s requirements.”
What Does This Affirmation Mean?
It may seem like the DOJ’s decision not to issue any new regulations is a bad thing. However, this is actually good news for individuals with disabilities and advocates for accessible web content.
The DOJ’s affirmation that the ADA applies to websites means that individuals with disabilities and advocacy programs can continue to push back against ADA violations on public accommodations websites. It also means that courts can continue to make individual rulings on ADA violations, such as in the case of Winn-Dixie v. Gil.
This is another important step for website accessibility and the right to equal access for individuals with disabilities. It may even create a wave of change for future lawsuits or accessibility guidelines.