In 1990, Congress passed the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by then-President George H.W. Bush. Among other things, the law requires all public facilities to be easily accessible to people with disabilities, which means removing obstacles that interfered with wheelchair accessibility, constructing ramps or elevators to make access easy to the location and having things within reach of those in wheelchairs.
Wheelchair accessible vans and assistive technology of all kinds have been a tremendous boon to those dependent on wheelchairs, allowing them access to almost anywhere they want to go. But some shops and restaurants, either by ignorance or design, have never made the modifications to their properties to bring them in compliance with ADA guidelines.
Forced into Compliance
In recent news, lawyers in New York City have been recruiting disabled individuals to bring lawsuits against various businesses for violations of the ADA. These incidents of non-compliance are sought out by the attorneys themselves, and it isn’t unusual for one disabled individual to be used as a plaintiff in more than one case.
Most of these suits never go to court. The plaintiffs usually receive a settlement of $500, while the attorneys get several thousands of dollars in legal fees. The settlements almost always include a confidentiality clause, so the exact amount that these suits are costing store owners is unknown.
Pros and Cons
The practice, which is completely legal, is effective in that it forces stores and restaurants to become ADA-compliant. Almost immediately after being served with lawsuit papers, shop owners arrange to have barriers to wheelchair accessibility removed. However, there are questions as to whether this process fair or moral.
Many would argue that these attorneys, not all of whom are actually from New York City, are essentially taking advantage of their disabled plaintiffs, especially in light of the large discrepancy between a typical pay-out and the amount charged for legal fees. In addition, due to the seemingly frivolous nature of many of these lawsuits, it stands to question what effect this will have on legitimate lawsuits (remember the boy who cried wolf?).
However, proponents of this practice would point out that people with disabilities often don’t fight for their rights and the businesses in question were in clear violation of the law. That means these lawyers and their lawsuits are fulfilling a legitimate need and improving the quality of life for New Yorkers with disabilities.
While some attorneys have expressed their belief that this is an excellent enforcement tactic, others say it’s a scam to line the pockets of lawyers. If enforcement is the real goal, why not make a law that gives a defendant in an ADA noncompliance lawsuit 90 days to bring their location to standard? Enforcement though education seems to be fairer than enforcement through intimidation.
Regardless of whether this practice is ethical, it will continue to go on. The best advice for businesses is to become knowledgeable about ADA guidelines and make necessary changes to ensure prime accessibility. This will not only help to diminish the potential for lawsuits, but will benefit businesses as well, as those with disabilities will be more likely to frequent places they can easily navigate.