An Interview with Catherine Strode
Over 40,000 warnings for noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have been filed against Arizona businesses in the past two years. All of the warnings were filed by one attorney claiming to represent the state’s community of individuals with disabilities. The Executive Director of The Arc of Arizona, Jon Meyers, says the lawsuits are only benefitting the attorney who is filing them. They are also causing ill will toward the disability community statewide.
In an interview with Catherine Strode, he warns why other states, including Colorado, should be vigilant of this “drive by lawsuit” trend.
How do these “drive by lawsuits” get filed?
“An individual attorney has created an organization, Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities. This attorney is finding individuals who have disabilities and he’s utilizing them as a pretext for filing warnings against businesses that he finds not in Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. He’s trolling. He’s going around to businesses and taking photographs of violations of: sign height, or parking space placement, or parking space width. He notifies businesses that, on behalf of this individual with a disability, he will settle with them if they pay a fee. It (the fee) averages around $5000. The way these claims are being filed, we call them ‘drive by lawsuits.’ They are being filed by a single law firm that is taking advantage of a very good law to enrich itself and not actually affect any meaningful changes. The so called plaintiffs typically receive some kind of lump sum or flat fee paid from the attorney. The attorney himself is the one who is walking away with the vast majority of the money. It is not addressing a true need and ensuring that greater compliance is being achieved.”
Why aren’t the suits leading to more ADA compliance from businesses?
“This attorney has never gone back to ensure the business owner that they are now in compliance and free from the threat of further litigation. He accepts the check they pay but there’s no follow up. In fact, there’s some question in Arizona as to whether the fees are legal and whether the individuals represented by this attorney even have standing. They would have to have patronized, or attempted to patronize, the business. It has to be seen from the court that they would patronize the business a second time if those accommodations were provided. None of that is happening. In most cases, these individuals never attempted to park, or had any other issues getting into the business, or would have occasion to go back a second time. Many business owners think they are being extorted. It’s a shake down on part of an attorney who really has no interest in seeing positive change take place.”
How is this affecting the disability community in Arizona?
“This process has given the disability community a black eye. Some business owners have taken the view that this attorney represents the broader disabilities community and, in fact, he does not. If the business owners see people with disabilities as somehow trying to take advantage or placing additional financial burdens on them, it furthers a negative perception. It creates a situation of opposition between two groups of people who benefit each other when they work together. We believe most business owners want to comply with the law. They either don’t know what the requirements are, or they were issued occupancy permits based on an assumption they couldn’t get that permit if they weren’t in compliance. We would like to see the business community more proactively educating itself about the requirements of the ADA, taking action to correct noncompliance issues, and if possible receiving some kind of incentive for doing that. We don’t see the ‘drive by lawsuit’ approach as being either morally, ethically, or legally, the proper way to go about it.”
How is what’s happening in Arizona relevant in Colorado?
“These (drive by lawsuits) can happen anywhere unless laws already exist on the books that can prevent this from occurring. We know ADA noncompliance is a substantial issue nationwide. We all need to be vigilant in keeping actors like this from making the public believe they, in any way, represent the broader disability community. We all have a vested interest in this so all parties benefit from what compliance will bring to our communities. We have to avoid getting into a situation where either we on the disability side are blaming businesses, or businesses blaming individuals with disabilities for placing burdens on them to impose compliance with the ADA. If full compliance were ever to be achieved, it would be a tremendous benefit for us financially, economically, as well as socially.”
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.