By Shannon Meade and Matt Sutton
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was a landmark achievement, recognizing the right of disabled individuals to enjoy equal access to all facilities and services. Sadly, there are some lawyers hijacking the ADA to line their own pockets.
The strategy has become known as the “drive-by lawsuit.” There are some lawyers who cruise communities in search of small, easily rectifiable ADA infractions. These attorneys then file lawsuits—often hundreds of boilerplate complaints over the same minor issue, changing only the accused business’ name. Their intent is not to protect disabled Americans, it’s to reap a profit by pretending to do so.
Most small business owners, lacking the funds to defend themselves in court and fearing large, punitive damages, ultimately cave to these shakedowns. The resulting settlements can cost over $10,000, with at least 90 percent of the money going to lawyers’ fees. The trend is on the rise and could siphon over $500 million from small business owners nationwide over the next decade.
The problem is perhaps best encapsulated in the experience of a California donut shop owner, herself dependent on a wheelchair. Although she could readily access her own place of business, she was sued because the “disabled parking only” signs she posted near her many handicap-accessible parking spots failed to include the language “Minimum fine $250.” The lawsuit claims that this is a violation of the ADA even though there is no specific language addressing this requirement and California allows a right to cure this issue. This has squarely put her in the sights of lawyers seeking a payout.
The National Restaurant Association has heard numerous horror stories like this from across the country. Unfortunately, California is a hotbed, with over 2,000 unnecessary ADA lawsuits filed in the first six months of 2018 alone. This marks a substantial increase over the year before, despite some incremental progress on the problem.
Today, restaurant owners are scared that, despite their best efforts, they could be held ransom because of slight ADA oversights. In response to these widespread concerns, the National Restaurant Association and the California Restaurant Association hosted a roundtable discussion in San Diego on Wednesday, bringing together business and community leaders alongside policy experts and congressional staff in an effort to advance long-term solutions.
Our goal is to raise awareness and mobilize support for federal reforms to bring an end to these legal abuses and restore integrity to the ADA. We strongly back national legislation, such as the bipartisan U.S. House bill H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act, which would add an “opportunity to cure” provision. The idea is to give small business owners a short window of time to fix any ADA-related issue, before a lawsuit can proceed in court.
This change aligns with the original intent of the ADA. It would engage small business owners in promptly remedying any access problems or ADA modifications. That way, money would be invested in improving local establishments for disabled guests, rather than paying off lawyers. This will help make our communities and businesses more welcoming to every patron.
Taking on the issues that matter to the restaurant community — dominated by small business owners — is a core mission of the National Restaurant Association. The San Diego roundtable serves as a flagship event as we look to introduce a series of subsequent discussions around the country on this topic. Restaurants want patrons to have a great experience and these reforms accomplish this goal while continuing to promote accessibility.
By sharing information and advocating for commonsense solutions, we can protect and improve the local hospitality establishments that make our neighborhoods unique, vibrant, and economically strong.
Shannon Meade is vice president for policy and legal advocacy at the National Restaurant Association. Matt Sutton is the senior vice president for government affairs and Public Policy at the California Restaurant Association.
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