TARGET 8: Drive-by lawsuits over accessibility challenge businesses

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ROLLA – Serial plaintiffs are bringing “drive-by lawsuits” against small and large businesses all over the country, potentially costing them thousands of dollars. The lawsuits allege businesses are not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which ensures equal opportunity for people with disabilities.  

Some plaintiffs have individually filed hundreds of lawsuits, claiming businesses or government buildings are inaccessible to people with disabilities. In Missouri, there have been cases of plaintiffs filing dozens of suits against businesses, including one woman who filed 31 federal ADA lawsuits against businesses in Rolla, Springfield, Salem and Branson.

Woman sues up and down Missouri streets

Connie Steelman spent half of her time living in Missouri and half of her time living in Florida. She had a disability and was confined to a wheelchair. While in Missouri, she said she found multiple businesses with issues that made it difficult for her to access.

In legal terms, she alleged businesses like Sonic, Hobby Lobby, J.C. Penney, a movie theater, a doctor’s office, outlet mall, and dozens of others had “discriminated against her on the basis of her disability and have endangered her safety.” She accused the Salem Police Department and the Salem City Park of the same violations under the ADA.

All told, court documents showed Steelman filed at least 67 ADA lawsuits in 2011 and 2012 in an 18-month time period. In Missouri, a judge declared Steelman a “serial plaintiff” and dismissed the bulk of her cases within the state.

Target 8 catalogued, mapped and examined the 31 lawsuits Steelman filed in Missouri. Many of the lawsuits included “copy and paste” language and could be traced to businesses along main corridors in the cities where she sued. For example, eight of the lawsuits were against businesses on Bishop Avenue in Rolla.

Neither Steelman nor attorneys for the businesses responded to requests for comment for this story.

‘That’s an easy target’

More than 6,500 businesses in the United States faced ADA lawsuits in 2016, according to data compiled by Seyfarth Shaw LLP. The number of cases filed in federal court in 2016 (6,601) was 37 percent higher than the number filed in 2015 (4,789).

“Part of the reason of why those are so frequent in the lawsuits we see is because it’s easy,” said Kristina Launey, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw who specializes in defending businesses sued under the ADA. “A plaintiff or a plaintiff’s expert can even just drive by, and if they see just driving by those things that should be there that aren’t, under the accessibility regulation, then they know, right there, there’s a violation, that’s an easy target.”

Target 8 built a database of ADA lawsuits filed against businesses and government entities in the state of Missouri from 2007-2016. There were 149 cases throughout the state. Interestingly, six plaintiffs accounted for 75 of those cases.

Missouri’s numbers are considerably lower than some other states. Great Plains ADA Associate Director Chuck Graham said considering how many violations there are in businesses around the country and even in mid-Missouri, 149 is a very low number.  

“I mean I could find 149 businesses that have issues in Columbia if I wanted to. It’s not that hard,” Graham said. “Because a lot of people have just put their heads in the sand and really not dealt with it unless they’re doing new construction, which of course has to comply with the ADA.”


Why are people suing?

Launey said the most common violations plaintiffs sue over tend to be obvious: Improper parking lot striping or signage and entrances that don’t meet accessibility regulations (such as incorrect door handles).

Those cases often come from what Launey calls “tester plaintiffs” because they go looking for violations that are easy to see just by quickly looking around any town. Courts have determined this type of lawsuit is legal to bring, but Launey said they can make it more difficult for others with complaints to sue.

“We’ve seen a lot of tester lawsuits. They’re restricting the ability of someone who doesn’t have a legitimate desire to patronize a certain business or to seek the goods and services of the business.”

While some lawsuits are considered frivolous because people are out looking for money, in most states, including Missouri, ADA plaintiffs cannot get much out of a lawsuit. In all but California, Florida and Washington D.C., people can only sue to make the businesses fix the issues and for attorney fees. Because of those laws, Graham said it can actually be incredibly difficult to find attorneys to help people with disabilities bring cases to court.

“The ADA doesn’t allow punitive damages, so most attorneys throughout the country aren’t interested in taking on ADA cases,” Graham said.

As for the concept of “tester lawsuits,” Graham said he personally prefers to have face-to-face conversations with business owners to get compliance changes, but he also understands why some people will bring legal action for civil rights issues like accessibility.

“If it’s inaccessible and it violates people’s civil rights, that’s their right to do so. I mean if you went into a restaurant, and you saw a water fountain that said ‘whites only,’ would you not be interested in filing a civil rights complaint just because you saw the sign?”

Newly-introduced legislation aims to enforce ADA and stop ‘drive-by lawsuits’

Last week, a Congressman from Texas introduced a new bill to try to stop frivolous ADA lawsuits, while still requiring businesses to come into compliance with the law. The bill would put a timeline on actions against businesses, allowing them time to fix issues before moving to a courtroom.

House Bill 620 would give businesses 60 days to respond to an ADA complaint and 120 days to fix the issue. If a business did not meet those deadlines, then someone could go ahead with a lawsuit.

Know the law, know your rights

Both Launey and Graham said the answer to stopping ADA lawsuits is for businesses to learn the law and be in compliance.

“It’s just a shame that there are so many of these serial plaintiffs out there doing these so-called drive-by lawsuits that really give legitimate plaintiffs or the people who are trying to use the law to make the change that it was intended to make, it gives the laws as a whole a bad name,” Launey said.

Both experts recommended tips for making sure businesses are compliant:
-    Make sure any architects or contractors know the ADA
-    Have an inspector check out existing, renovated or newly-constructed buildings for ADA compliance
-    Train employees on how to interact with customers with disabilities and maintain the business for compliance
-    Listen to customers with disabilities who raise accessibility concerns
-    Work to fix any compliance issues; some businesses may qualify for tax credits for fixing accessibility issues.

Graham said there are misconceptions about the ADA, including that some people wrongly believe their business might be grandfathered in. He said there are no exceptions, but that there are ways to upgrade to meet the law without having to do an extremely expensive and immediate renovation.

“Maybe one year they can afford to do the parking. Maybe the next year it’s the entrance to the building. Maybe the next year it’s the restrooms. Maybe one year they can’t afford to do things,” Graham said. “Businesses are required to try to continually upgrade and comply with the ADA over time as it’s readily achievable to do so.”

The Great Plains ADA offers a number of services to help businesses and people with disabilities with ADA issues. The office can help with tax credit information and technical assistance.