Since its passage in 1990, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act has gone from a well-intended idea to an abused one to a tool for wholesale extortion.
Last week, Yuba City agreed to pay $15,000 to George Louie, a West Sacramento man who "has sued hundreds of Northern California cities and businesses for failing to comply with the ADA," The Bee reported.
Recently passed bipartisan legislation was supposed to constrain lawyers like Louie. Signed into law in September, Senate Bill 1186 barred so-called "demand letters," missives sent to businesses by plaintiffs demanding money in exchange for not filing suit over potential ADA violations.
Until last month, California was one of only three states allowing demand letters. I doubt the ban will impede the ambulance-chasing.
Forty percent of all ADA lawsuits are filed in California. The San Diego-based Lawyers Against Lawsuit Abuse calculates that roughly 1,000 ADA suits are filed annually in the state's federal courts. Hundreds more are filed in state courts, and even some in small-claims divisions.
The lawyers group conservatively estimates that such suits cost California businesses $20 million each year.
With lawyers using disabled people like sock puppets Louie works with the Cable Gallagher law firm in Folsom Yuba City's decision demonstrates that you don't need simple demand letters to cash in. A little more time and money spent drafting and filing a lawsuit assures an easy payday.
What's to stop a different law firm and their disabled confederates from filing suit? Attorneys are only too willing to enable a cottage industry casting about for violations and then suing. Los Angeles-based Morse Mehrban asks potential clients on his website, "Confined to a wheelchair in California? You may be entitled to $4,000 each time you can't use something at a business because of your disability."
For unsuspecting businesses, "each time" is like legal Whack-a-Mole. ADA regulations contain a hellish thicket of requirements governing nearly every aspect of designing, building, stocking and running anything that can be construed as a public accommodation: a parking lot with blue-striped access lanes narrower than 8 feet, a threshold too high for a wheelchair, a condiments counter a half-inch over compliance, a public restroom with a coat hook beyond reach.
Don't laugh. One man, Thomas Mundy, filed all those complaints, as chronicled in a 2009 Los Angeles Times profile. Divorced and jobless, Mundy became a serial litigant and made an estimated $300,000 in little over a year, not by sending demand letters but by filing lawsuits over 150 of them through his attorney, Morse Mehrban.
Often, ADA violations are the unintended work of third-party architects and contractors rather than property owners. There's no guaranteed protection even when local government declares you in compliance.
Sacramento County inspectors had certified the Basketball Town community center in Rancho Cordova as ADA compliant because the same amenities were available both upstairs and down. Yet, a wheelchair-confined man sued in 2006 because there was no access to the upper level. He wanted an elevator installed. Unable to afford the installation costs, the facility closed.
The man's attorney said this was never his client's intention, but here's what he told The Bee: "All they have to do is agree to put in a lift so that disabled people can use (the facility) just the same as everyone else, and we'll be happy to talk about settlement."
Why should he get a settlement? If all they have to do is put in an elevator, they can put in an elevator and his work is done. He shouldn't get a dime.
If these morally bankrupt legal contortionists really cared about the disabled, their goal would be securing equal access for the physically or mentally disabled, not cash-inducing shakedown lawsuits.
This is what happens when good intentions get in the hands of bad people. This not only gives the legal profession a bad name, it gives the disabled a bad name.
Solutions? Perhaps. How about no contingency fees based on ADA awards? That way, attorneys won't have incentive to abuse the law for money because they'll always be getting a set fee from clients. Or use some of that $20 million made annually in ADA lawsuits to fund construction projects that get businesses compliant. You'd do that if you really cared about the handicapped, no?
Limit the damage awards only to victims who suffer actual physical harm, and limit the damages themselves to paying medical bills.
Enforce compliance through a government agency, not the courts. Granted, there's little love for another government bureaucracy, but leaving enforcement to profit-seekers in a hopelessly flawed legal system is arbitrary, capricious and unconscionable.
Sorry, the joke about the lawyer at the bottom of the ocean isn't an option.