For the first time in 20 years, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has published guidance on website accessibility matters under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

In the publication, posted on March 18, 2022, and available at ADA.gov, the DOJ reiterates its priority for ensuring web accessibility for people with disabilities and emphasizes this is an obligation of both state and local governments under Title II of the ADA, and businesses that are open to the public, or public accommodations, under Title III.

The guidance provides a non-exclusive listing of examples, options, and resources for assistance and guidance in making websites available to the disabled.  Importantly, however, the technical assistance states that “The Department of Justice does not have a regulation setting out detailed standards, but the Department’s longstanding interpretation of the general nondiscrimination and effective communication provisions applies to web accessibility.”  Thus, as the publication further notes, businesses and states have flexibility in how they comply with the ADA general requirements as to websites, but they still must ensure that the programs and services in good faith provided to the public are accessible to people with disabilities.

The publication also notes that automated accessibility checkers and overlays can be helpful tools in identifying or fixing problems, but that they need to be used carefully.  The DOJ further states that pairing a manual check of a website with the use of automated checkers can give a better sense of the accessibility of the website.  The DOJ also explains that the existing technical standards provide helpful guidance concerning how to ensure accessibility, and refers to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the Section 508 standards utilized by the Federal Government for its own website. 

ShuffieldLowman is ready to assist companies and clients with respect to issues that may arise from ADA website compliance. For additional questions on ADA website accessibility, please contact our commercial and civil litigation or corporate law teams. Visit our contact page here

In an important decision issued April 7, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit – which covers Alabama, Florida and Georgia – reversed a lower court decision and ruled that Winn Dixie’s website does not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) with respect to its use by visually impaired people.

The Plaintiff in the lawsuit, Juan Gil, is legally blind and was a long-time Winn Dixie shopper.  He found that Winn Dixie’s website would not function with his screen-reading technology.  The website’s primary functions were to re-fill existing prescriptions for in-store pick-up and to link digital manufacturer coupons to the customer’s Winn Dixie rewards card so that the coupons are applied automatically upon check-out.  Gil obtained a summary judgment against Winn Dixie in the District Court for the Southern District of Florida, which held that since its website was incompatible with screen-reader software, Winn Dixie violated the ADA.  The District Court issued an injunction requiring Winn Dixie to make its website accessible to individuals with disabilities, specifically by conforming its website to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, and ordered other related relief.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the Atlanta-based Appeals Court ruled, first, that websites themselves – even if conjoined with a business that has brick and mortar facilities – is not a “public accommodation” under the ADA.  On this first issue, it disagreed with rulings of other circuit courts of appeal.

Second, the 11th Circuit declined to hold that a company website may provide a “nexus” to its brick and mortar facilities so as to be viewed as part and parcel of the same, at least under the facts of this case, so as to require that the website afford accessibility to the visually impaired under the ADA.

Last, the Court held that Winn Dixie’s website did not otherwise violate the ADA by presenting “intangible barriers” to the “equal access to the services, privileges and advantages of Winn Dixie’s physical stores”, which are places of public accommodation.  In reaching this, the Court emphasized that Winn Dixie’s website has only limited functionality and, most importantly, did not function as or allow points of sale.  The chief advantages of the website were that it allowed the refill of prescriptions (which still needed to be picked up in the store) and also allowed manufacturer coupons to be put on a Winn Dixie shopping card (although the redemption of such coupons still had to happen within a Winn Dixie store).  Gil’s inability to access these features, while sighted customers or users could, did not translate into an ADA violation. The Court distinguished other cases where sales actually occurred through the company website, and thus it may reach a different decision if presented with those facts.

As indicated above, the 11th Circuit decision is at odds with decisions of other circuit courts of appeal, thus setting up a conflict in the law which can only be resolved by the United States Supreme Court.  Until the same occurs, jurisdiction and venue (that is, the court and location where the action is held) will be extremely important to, if not determinative of, the outcomes in these cases.

ShuffieldLowman stands ready to assist companies and clients with respect to issues that may arise from ADA website compliance. For additional questions on ADA website accessibility, please contact our commercial and civil litigation or corporate law teams. Visit our contact page here

The Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was enacted in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including in employment, schools, transportation and all public places and private places that are open to the public.  Title III of the ADA regulates public accommodations and services operated by private entities, and is the basis for a new wave of “website accessibility” claims.

ADA public accommodation accessibility claims

Traditionally, public accommodation accessibility claims involved unannounced visits by individuals with one or more disabilities to places of business (typically restaurants, hotels, and other retail establishments) to ascertain whether such public accommodations were in compliance with the ADA.  Many of these “visits” were undertaken by either representatives of interest groups or “testers”, who may not have even lived close to or otherwise frequented such places.  Numerous lawsuits resulted, with Florida being a hot spot for such activity.

With the advent and proliferation of websites and the internet, issues were raised as to whether company websites were within the scope of the ADA and, thus, whether they had a duty to code their websites to be accessible to visually impaired and hearing impaired persons.  Despite the fact that the Department of Justice, regardless of its repeated pronouncements, has failed to enact regulations governing the accessibility of websites, claims have been brought against companies for their alleged lack of website accessibility compliance under the ADA.  These claims have accelerated and expanded in number.  Once again, Florida is at the top of the pack in the number of these lawsuits

The law continues to develop in this area, but it is now reasonably established that if a business operates a “brick and mortar facility” somewhere, which is open to the public, then a website of such business is, or is part and parcel of, a public accommodation and subject to ADA requirements.  Failure to adhere to those “requirements” exposes the business to the standard ADA remedies, including injunctive relief and plaintiff’s costs and expert witness and attorney’s fees.  This is in addition to, of course, a business incurring its own attorney’s and expert’s fees and other costs in defense of such action.

ADA requirement for websites – WCAG 2.0

So what are the ADA “requirements” in this regard?  In the void created by the absence of Department of Justice regulations, courts have looked to private industry and associations for an applicable standard as to website accessibility for the visually impaired.  In this regard, certain courts have looked to and even embraced the Worldwide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (“WCAG 2.0”) as the standard to be met.

Like their predecessor “testers” or “drive-by visitors”, generally speaking, plaintiffs who file these website accessibility claims tend to be repeat or serial filers.  As opposed to their predecessors, however, they do not have to actually visit the company facility (or even leave their house or apartment); rather, all they need to do is access the company’s website from wherever they are.  Typically, they do so in the presence of their chosen expert and videotape their maneuvering through the website and the claimed obstacles and deficiencies therein.  Thus, many times these cases come “readymade” upon filing.

Given the above, it is best to address these cases promptly.  Of course, the best defense would be to have an ADA compliant website (to the extent possible).  Care in selecting website programmers and coders is warranted, as WCAG 2.0 has many specific requirements, and consultants must be familiar with them and be able to test compliance appropriately.  The experience of many businesses in this regard, as to self-described consultants or experts in the area, has been very uneven.  This can be quite a problem, as there are cases where a company’s expert has been rejected, and also cases that hold that efforts to bring a website into compliance, that have not been finalized, do not stay litigation or preclude further litigation against the company, as to the same website, by another plaintiff.

ShuffieldLowman stands ready to assist companies and clients with respect to these issues.  Indeed, ShuffieldLowman early on took the lead itself in having its website audited and brought into compliance, and certified in accordance, with WCAG 2.0 AA standards. If you have additional questions on ADA Website Compliance you can reach out to us at 407-581-9800.  

 

In the groundbreaking case of Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293, 126 S. Ct. 1735, 164 L. Ed. 2d 480 (2006), the United State Supreme Court scaled back the (widely perceived) extensive parameters of the so-called “probate exception” to federal jurisdiction in cases involving estate fiduciaries or touching upon state court probate proceedings.  As a result, more cases that involve probate issues, estate proceedings or the parties thereto are ending up in federal court.  However, even though a plaintiff may successfully fend off a challenge to federal court jurisdiction based on the probate exception – as several have done (at least in part)[1] – merely clearing this jurisdictional hurdle does not assure that such “victorious” litigant will stay in federal court.

A potential counterbalance to more expansive federal court jurisdiction, given the “loosening” of the probate exception, where state probate (or trust) proceedings are in play, is the doctrine of prior exclusive jurisdiction.  Under such doctrine, it is inappropriate for a federal court to exercise jurisdiction where there are two suits, one in state court and one in federal court, and the suits are in rem or quasi in rem.  This is also known as the Princess Lida doctrine.  This does not refer to a Star Wars character, but, rather, to the Supreme Court decision in Princess Lida of Thurn and Taxis v. Thompson, 305 U.S. 456, 59 S. Ct. 275, 83 L. Ed. 285 (1939).  It has been held that this doctrine of prior exclusive jurisdiction has melded with the probate exception in cases involving state probate proceedings and estate administration, which may conflict with federal jurisdiction.  See Selseth v. Darwit, 536 F. Supp. 2d 883 (N.D. Ill. 2008).

In Princess Lida, state court proceedings in Pennsylvania were commenced concerning a trust set up to benefit Princess Lida of Thurn and Taxis, formerly Lida Eleanor Purcell Fitzgerald, emanating from her divorce from George P. Fitzgerald and payments from the divorce settlement.  The Pennsylvania state court maintained jurisdiction of this matter for years, which included the filing and review of accountings.  After several years of having the trust in the Pennsylvania state court, and while the same was still pending, Lida instituted suit in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania alleging mismanagement of the trust funds and requesting various relief.  Subsequently, both the state court and the federal court enjoined the parties in the other action from pursuing the same.  The state court’s ruling was affirmed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  Obviously, at a stalemate, with each court (the state and federal) ordering the parties not to pursue the other case, the United States Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction and acted.

The United States Supreme Court held that one court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the administration of a trust precluded a second court from exercising quasi in rem jurisdiction over a later lawsuit brought by the beneficiaries of the trust asserting claims against the trustees for mismanaging the trust.  The Court noted that two courts may have concurrent jurisdiction over cases involving in personam claims, and both may “proceed with the litigation at least until judgment is obtained in one of them which may be set up as res judicata in the other.”  However, the Court held that there cannot be concurrent jurisdiction over in rem or quasi in rem claims.  The Court stated:

[I]f the two suits are in rem, or quasi in rem, so that the court, or its officer, has possession or must have control of the property which is the subject of the litigation in order to proceed with the cause and grant the relief sought the jurisdiction of the one court must yield to that of the other.

We have said that the principle applicable to both federal and state courts that the court first assuming jurisdiction over property may maintain and exercise that jurisdiction to the exclusion of the other, is not restricted to cases where property has been actually seized under judicial process before a second suit is instituted, but applies as well where suits are brought to marshal assets, administer trusts, or liquidate estates, and in suits of a similar nature where, to give effect to its jurisdiction, the court must control the property.

The Supreme Court thus ruled that the Common Pleas Court of Pennsylvania had acquired jurisdiction, and that the federal court for the Western District of Pennsylvania was without jurisdiction of the suit subsequently brought for the same or similar relief, and that the parties in that suit were properly enjoined from pursuing it.

This principle, which has become known as the “Princess Lida Doctrine”, has been applied routinely throughout the country. See Dailey v. National Hockey League, 987 F. 2d 172, 175 (3d Cir. 1993) (acknowledging the continuing validity of the Princess Lida doctrine).  In short, “[t]he Princess Lida doctrine requires abstention based upon principles of comity and in rem jurisdiction.”  Selton v. U.S. Bank Trust Nat. Assn., SD, No. 6:14-cv-1278-ORL-37KRS, 2015 WL 4987706, *4, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109487 (M.D. Fla. August 19, 2015).

As indicated, the Princess Lida doctrine applies equally to state and federal courts. See Cartwright v. Garner, 751 F. 3d 752, 761 (6th Cir. 2014) (“The principle that the court first assuming jurisdiction over the property may maintain and exercise that jurisdiction is applicable to both state and federal courts.”).  As a consequence, Princess Lida also applies where no federal court is involved and both the first and second actions are pending in the courts of different states.  In such cases, where a court in one state first assumes in rem or quasi in rem jurisdiction over property, a court in a later-filed action in another state must abstain from hearing claims relating to the same property. In re Rust’s Estate, 17 Pa. D. & C.3d 627 (Pa. Com. Pl. 1979) (expressly holding that Princess Lida applies where two actions are pending in the courts of different states, and that the exercise of in rem or quasi in rem jurisdiction by a court in one state deprives a court in a different state of jurisdiction over a later-filed in rem or quasi in rem action concerning the same subject matter as the first action); Interfirst Bank-Houston v. Quintana Petroleum, 699 SW 2d 864, 878 (Tex. Ct. App. 1985) (applying Princess Lida and holding that “Where the jurisdiction of a court [of another state] has attached, and the proceeding is quasi in rem, as is the administration of a trust, other courts should not interfere with that jurisdiction.”)

Florida courts have likewise adopted the principles enumerated in Princess Lida and noted their applicability to cases involving trusts.  Blake v. Blake, 172 So. 2d 9, 10 (Fla. 3d DCA 1965) (“As between courts of concurrent jurisdiction, it has generally been held that the court which first exercises jurisdiction over a matter retains such jurisdiction to the termination of the cause.”).  Indeed, prior to Princess Lida, the Florida Supreme Court held that “a court which has in its rightful possession or under its control property involved in litigation may exercise jurisdiction over such property to the exclusion of all other courts, and another court of concurrent jurisdiction cannot interfere and wrest from it the jurisdiction first obtained.” Maddox Grocery Co. v. Hay, 100 So. 747, 747 (Fla. 1924).

1 See, e.g., Jones v. Brennan, 465 F.3d 304 (7th Cir. 2006); May v. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., 2009 WL 482719 (E.D. Mich 2009).