Monday, April 04, 2005

Orlando Sentinel on Serial ADA Suits

Yesterday's Orlando Sentinel had this piece on that increasingly contentious issue. Some excerpts:

Bob Patterson, owner of the full-service gas station on Edgewater Drive in Orlando, says he has many disabled customers and prides himself on giving them prompt, friendly attention at a fair price.

Still, he's upset over recently having to spend $9,000 to remodel a
bathroom, install a wheelchair ramp and add a handicapped parking

Patterson paid for the work after getting a letter from a Sarasota lawyer who specializes in representing plaintiffs against businesses for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, commonly referred to as the ADA.

"If somebody was denied access, I'd have no problem" making the changes, Patterson said. "But how can someone sue you for denying access to a building they've never been in, with a lawyer who's 120 miles away?"

* * *

U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell of Orlando complained in a ruling last year about an "ADA lawsuit binge" against employers. And while many business owners are reluctant to talk about the suits, lawyers who represent them say the situation has gotten out of hand.

"I did research on one plaintiff, and he had in the range of 50 cases
pending at one time," said Terri Herrmann, a lawyer with Akerman Senterfitt in Orlando who has defended many employers against ADA lawsuits."

There have been a rash of [ADA] cases in the past couple of years," said Herrmann, who has an undergraduate degree in architecture. "I think it's attorneys realizing what an opportunity the ADA is for scamming attorneys' fees."

* * *

But it's not just business owners and company lawyers complaining about the large number of ADA lawsuits. Steve Howells, a director with the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities in Tallahassee, complains that "ADA extortionists" care a lot more about collecting attorneys' fees than removing barriers for the disabled.

Their modus operandi, he added, is to file dozens of complaints
simultaneously in what are often called "drive-by lawsuits.""Drive-bys are flooding the courts," Howells said, and many of the violations they cite are minor ones. Even serious violations may not be fixed, he said, because the lawyers who file the suits "don't care if they're resolved. They just want their fees."

But Howells, unlike Herrmann, thinks that most ADA lawsuits are legitimate, as are the lawyers who file them. "There are probably a few ADA extortionists. In any profession, there are people who exploit opportunities."

That's how Agnes sees it. The lawyer who sparked Bob Patterson's ire said it's crucial that legal settlements spelling out corrective action are followed up to ensure they are accomplished.

Agnes said a client, whom he would not identify, had visited College Park Texaco and reported the ADA violations to him.

* * *

Ronald Muschong, director of the Center for Independent Living for
Southwest Florida, said he appreciates what Agnes does. He, too, complains about drive-by lawsuits, not because of their nuisance to businesses but because they often do not accomplish their stated purpose: to make businesses more accessible to persons with disabilities.

But unscrupulous lawyers aren't the only problem, Muschong said. He cites judges who don't make sure settlement agreements are followed; building inspectors who allow construction or renovation that doesn't comply with the ADA; chambers of commerce that don't educate their members about the ADA; and business owners who claim ignorance about a law, which was passed in 1990 and has been in effect since January 1992.


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