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Room for compromise

Kathie Reece-McNeill, a 48-year-old Southern California businesswoman, is a rarity among the targets of ADA access lawsuits.

She won.

But not before Reece-McNeill -- owner of the historic Aztec Hotel in Monrovia along the old Route 66 in eastern Los Angeles County -- had spent $100,000 defending herself against the suit.

Now she wants to be part of the solution, recently organizing a group called Access Without Lawsuits in an attempt to bridge the divide between California's disabled and business communities.

The lawsuit that started it all landed, as these things usually do, when she least expected it.

A former public relations executive, Reece-McNeill had bought the quirky old hotel in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in September 2000 -- exactly 75 years after it originally opened. The property, crumbling from years of neglect, bore little resemblance to the ornate two-story hotel that had opened in 1925 and, over a series of incarnations, had hosted the likes of Wyatt Earp, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.

Reece-McNeill began the laborious process of restoration, adhering to strict guidelines that govern historic sites. The building had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and was given similar status by the state -- creating a balancing act for its new owner, who said she had to "painstakingly wait for the federal government and the state to tell me the best and the right way to do things."

Then along came the lawsuit. In April 2003, with restoration under way, Reece-McNeill was sued by the disabled mother of a man whom she had underwritten for an extended stay at the hotel, a favor to a friend.

The lawsuit, filed by access attorney Mark D. Potter of San Marcos -- one of the state's most prolific filers -- listed several violations, including a lack of van-accessible parking and inaccessible restrooms.

Reece-McNeill felt stuck. "I wasn't in compliance because the federal and the state told me I couldn't be in compliance until we go through this process," she said, referring to the historic preservation rules.

The attorney demanded $18,000, she said, and her own attorney suggested she could probably settle for $10,000.

Instead, she decided to fight.

Reece-McNeill got government permission to make some simple architectural changes -- the addition of a disabled parking space, for instance, and grab rails in the women's lobby restroom. The plaintiff, Irene Meola, accepted the changes as satisfactory, according to court records, but the suit moved forward anyway, as Meola sought damages under California's Unruh Act.

In the end, a federal judge in the Central District of California became skeptical of the plaintiff's story, saying he wasn't convinced Meola had actually visited her son at the hotel. Her stories "changed throughout the lawsuit," the judge ruled in June 2005, refusing to award her damages.

Potter, who calls his law firm the Center for Disability Access, did not return Bee phone calls.

Reece-McNeill felt vindicated, but that vindication had cost her $100,000 in legal fees. A month later, the same judge denied her motion to recover her costs saying, in part, that the defendant's inconsistencies did not demonstrate "intentional deceit."

Today, the hotel's owner is plugging away at her restoration, her pocketbook leaner.

In creating Access Without Lawsuits, she linked up with a former disabled client of Potter's, Phil Di Prima, who had sued more than 50 Monrovia-area businesses before becoming disenchanted with the lawyer's practices. Together, they hope to find other means of achieving disabled access in California while pressing the Legislature to do the same.

"What's going to make the change," says the hotel owner, "is finding some middle ground."

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