Legal Report, April 2021

General Counsel, Davis & Associates, P.A.

Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., 2021 WL 1289906 (11th Cir. 2021). Americans with Disabilities Act; Public accommodations.
This opinion represents a continued federal circuit split on the issue of whether the websites of public accommodations (restaurants, bars, hotels, and grocery stores, etc.) are subject to jurisdiction under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. (“Winn-Dixie”), a grocery store chain, operates a website for the convenience of its customers but does not offer sales directly through the website. Juan Carlos Gil (“Gil”) is long-time Winn Dixie customer with a visual disability leaving him legally blind, so he must access this and other websites with screen reading software. Gil filed suit against Winn Dixie under Title III of the ADA, arguing that: 1) Winn-Dixie’s website itself was a place of public accommodation with a sufficient “nexus” to the store’s physical locations under the ADA (citing Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, 913 F.3d 898 (9th Cir.) which involved a Domino’s Pizza website which actually allowed customers to place orders online); and 2) the ADA prohibits “intangible barriers” that restrict a disabled person’s enjoyment of the “goods, services, and privileges” of a public accommodation. After a bench trial, the U.S. District Court agreed with Gil, ultimately finding a sufficient nexus between Winn-Dixie’s website and its physical store locations because Winn-Dixie’s website was so “heavily integrated” with its physical stores that making the store’s website inaccessible constituted a violation of Title III of the ADA.

On appeal, however, the Eleventh Circuit vacated and remanded the U.S. District Court’s holding, construing the plain language of Title III of the ADA to read that “public accommodations are limited to actual, physical places,” and not websites. To this end, the Eleventh Circuit’s majority opinion declined to adopt the Ninth Circuit’s “nexus” standard between the store’s website and physical locations, citing “no basis for it in the statute or in our precedent.” The majority opinion also distinguished the present case from the Eleventh Circuit’s previous holding in Rendon v. Valleycrest Productions, stating that, because Winn-Dixie only sells products in its physical stores, its website does not function as an “intangible barrier” to a visually disabled individual wishing to access the goods, services, or advantages of Winn-Dixie’s businesses.

In a dissent, Circuit Judge Jill Pryor adopted a broader interpretation of the ADA, asserting that the Act’s language protects disabled individuals not only from “exclu[sion], deni[al] [of] services, and segregat[ion],” but also from being “treated differently.” To this point, Winn Dixie’s failure to make its website compatible with screen-reading technology amounted to differential treatment of its visually-impaired customers which therefore amounted to discrimination under Title III of the ADA.

The majority opinion established by the Eleventh Circuit clearly rejects the “nexus” test for public accommodations and websites under the ADA, and, while not directly applicable to local governments as “public entities,” it provides a possible illustration as to how a similarly established Title II case may be resolved in the Eleventh Circuit, particularly one where a municipality provides its services and information in either an in-person format, an online format, or some combination thereof.

2. AGO Inf. Op. to Broward Cty. School Board General Counsel (January 28, 2021). In-person quorum requirements; School board advisory meetings.
The Florida Attorney General (“AG”) opined on whether a district school board’s advisory committee can meet remotely through communications media technology (“CMT”) and without the requirement of an in-person quorum at a physical meeting location. On September 30, 2020, the Governor’s Executive Order 20-69 expired, removing the authorization for local governments to conduct public meetings remotely using CMT and similarly resuming all in-person quorum requirements for such meetings. District school boards, as well as any school board advisory committees, are specifically subject to the in-person quorum requirement for public meetings pursuant to Sec. 1001.372, F.S. Therefore, the AG opined that with the expiration of Executive Order 20-69, the statutory in-person quorum requirement for district school board and school board advisory committee meetings under Sec. 1001.372, F.S. now controls, “unless and until legislatively or judicially determined otherwise.”