Website Accessibility: An Issue for Health Care Companies

Website accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act) is an issue of which health care providers and other health care companies should be aware. There have been lawsuits filed that include claims for website accessibility under these Acts. A number of entities, including health care providers, have received complaints on behalf of visually impaired individuals claiming that the entity’s web presence is not equally accessible to the visually impaired. These claims are brought under Title III of the ADA and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act on the theory that websites are public accommodations. Fueled by success in at least one federal district court case, complaints are being filed against private entities on the same theory. Thus, health care companies should be cognizant of website accessibility issues and take steps necessary to address compliance.

Can Mere Web Presence Render Employers Subject to an ADA Claim?

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida recently considered the issue of whether a website constitutes a public accommodation under the ADA in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.[1]  Gil involved a legally blind customer who shopped at the grocery and pharmacy chain and routinely refilled prescriptions at its brick and mortar locations. Using accommodation software, such as a screen reader, the customer was able to visit various websites, but found the store’s website was incompatible with the software. Specifically, the customer alleged that 90% of the tabs on the website could not be read by his software and that he was unable to obtain digital coupons, navigate the store locator tool, or refill prescriptions online for in-store pickup and delivery.

While no direct sales were made through the website, the store’s website allegedly deterred the customer from enjoying the chain’s goods and services in violation of Title III of the ADA. The crux of the argument was that the website constituted a “public accommodation” within the meaning of Title III, and therefore, violated the ADA by not providing equal access, and depriving the visually impaired of the “full and equal enjoyment” of its services.

Sidestepping a question that has divided federal appellate courts—whether the store’s website itself constitutes a “public accommodation”—the court found that the store’s website was “heavily integrated” with, and operated as a gateway to, its brick and mortar locations. Ultimately, the court determined the website denied the customer full and equal enjoyment of the store’s goods and services, issued a mandatory injunction requiring the store to address accessibility issues, and awarded attorneys’ fees to the customer.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

Although this case is not binding on any court (the case is on appeal to the 11th Circuit but no decision has yet been issued), it will have persuasive value across jurisdictions and provides ammunition to plaintiffs’ attorneys who are already filing Title III lawsuits against companies based on website inaccessibility.

Employers are, in many ways, left wondering what their responsibilities are to employees and the public alike, and whether their web presence renders them subject to claims under Titles I and III of the ADA.  Many jobs are performed entirely on computers and through various web or network databases. Many employers almost exclusively require that applications for jobs and internal transfers be submitted through web portals. And it is often the case that benefit information and handbooks are largely available through web portals—which are often managed by third parties.

Employers should proactively evaluate accessibility issues as they relate to points of web access for employees and customers alike. Due to the lack of regulatory guidance provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are frequently considered the industry standard governing website accessibility standards.

In addition, employers should take steps to ensure third-party service providers maintaining accessibility standards. In Gil, the Court determined the store had an obligation to require its third-party website manager to comply with accessibility standards. Accordingly, it is important for employers to understand their duties to employees and the public more generally.

While the issue is not limited to health care entities, it would apply fully to them and claims have been asserted against health care companies. Health care companies should consult with legal counsel or other consultants experienced in ADA accessibility to help ensure accessibility issues are identified and addressed so that employees and customers alike enjoy equal access and the health care company avoids potential claims.

[1] Civil No.16-23020-Civ-Scola (S.D. Fla. June 13, 2017).