Editorial: Help the disabled by fixing ADA scams

Stories of bottom-feeding attorneys and their professional victims running a legal extortion scam are not new. Ever since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, unscrupulous lawyers have sent people into small businesses to find the most minuscule violations then threaten to sue.

Business owners, afraid of costly litigation – but recognizing the complaints have some validity – pay the lawyers rather than fight. Or they go out of business.

A recent series by our cousin newspaper The Modesto Bee highlighted how this racket continues, despite the outrage over such practices.

It is unfortunate the ADA is necessary. Across the nation, there are still steps where there should be ramps, doors with handles too high and parking lots without handicapped spaces.

But many disabled people don’t complain. A sad result of these stories is that the disabled can become further ostracized when business people – fearing lawsuits – become terrified upon seeing a wheelchair roll toward their doors. Some, we’re told, turn off the lights and hide.

When President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA in 1990, he didn’t want the law to be a burden to local governments, so he and Republican lawmakers insisted it rely on the courts for enforcement.

California law puts a $4,000 fine on each violation and directed the proceeds to “aggrieved” parties, even if they weren’t harmed or inconvenienced by the violation. A business could be sued for faded paint on an open handicapped parking spot, a ramp 2 degrees too steep, incorrect wording on a sign. A practiced eye can spot half a dozen violations most anywhere, and that’s a $24,000 jackpot for a scammer.

According to the Civil Justice Association of California, there are roughly 30 to 40 lawyers working in California, home to nearly half of all ADA lawsuits. One used an undocumented immigrant, collecting government assistance despite two felony convictions, to file 800 lawsuits and rake in $1.2 million before he was deported.

There are other ways to fix this broken legal process, but all seem out of reach.

Private business has stepped in to help a little. Certified inspectors – charging around $250 an hour – will issue a certificate of compliance. But if the business owner is sued, all that provides is a place at the front of the courtroom line.

That’s not a permanent fix because ADA rules change constantly. Two years ago, signs next to handicapped parking spaces had to read “No parking.” Now, signs must warn that the fine is $250. That’s not a barrier to a disabled person, but still could be treated like one when it comes to fines. That’s ridiculous. If a business owner hasn’t put up a new sign, he should be given an opportunity to fix it before having to pay some lawyer $4,000.

If unscrupulous lawyers and phony victims are taking advantage of a law to harm so many – business owners, customers and the very people the ADA was designed to protect – then the law has clearly failed.

It’s time to fix it. It’s time the law included some justice.