Editorial: Lawyers big winners in ADA wars
It’s the kind of scam that gives self-serving lawyers a name not mentionable in a family newspaper. But, unfortunately, it’s all perfectly legal and almost unfightable in court.
In a recent presentation to the South Lake Tahoe Lodging Association, attorney Katherine Corsee painted a frightening scenario that is happening with alarming frequency.
A disabled zealot drives by a parking lot of a motel or restaurant, notices that the handicapped parking doesn’t meet the Americans with Disabilities Act and drives away. A little while later, the motel or restaurant owner is slapped with a lawsuit for the lack of access.
It’s a lawsuit, Corsee said, few companies will win.
That the complaining party never ventured onto the property or voiced his complaints to the owner is not an issue, according to state and federal law. Just the fact a handicapped parking spot forces the wheelchair bound activist to maneuver past a parked car or isn’t wide enough can put a business owner in court for years, with a whopping bill at the end of the ordeal.
Under federal and state law, the ADA requires reasonable accommodations for the disabled without creating undue hardship for the business. But in court, the definition of “reasonable accommodations” is so vague that businesses have a difficult time defending themselves, especially if the properties have undergone recent renovations.
That Americans, all Americans, should have access to public accommodations within reason is not the issue. But that lawyers are making big bucks off a piece of legislation meant to help people with disabilities is just alarming.
Under federal law, businesses are suppose to make a sincere effort to meet ADA standards. If they fail to do so, the businesses are required to make the corrections, as well as pay for court costs and attorney fees for both parties.
Under California law, or Title 24, businesses can be held for punitive damages as well. That makes California ripe for some easy money.
As Corsee explained, attorneys that specialize in this particular scam want to drive up fees as high as possible. Therefore, the meter is running from the moment the complaint is lodged with the attorney until the case is resolved some three to four years later. After all, the longer an attorney can drag the case out, the bigger the pay check.
There is little desire to settle, even if the property owner has done everything possible to settle the suit or fix the problem.
One attorney has even created a website encouraging people with disabilities to come forward. The site sports a cartoon image of a tank busting through handicapped parking signs with people in wheelchairs cheering on the “access buster,” as he calls himself.
Last year, there were at least four lawsuits filed against Lake Tahoe properties alone.
Business owners can protect themselves, said Corsee. But it requires a plan, some expert advise and a real desire to create better access.
ADA has had a wonderful impact in so many ways, creating access for those who have been excluded from doing what most of us consider routine. But unscrupulous attorneys are creating a minefield for so many businesses while amassing a gold mine for themselves.
And that’s just a shame.
Claire Fortier, the opinion page editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, can be reached at email@example.com or (530) 541-3880, ext. 221.
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