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Superior Court Dismisses ADA Lawsuits

Business owners gain relief from a spate of lawsuits alleging violations of the ADA and Arizona's disabilities law.

Gaye L. Gould  
 

More than 1,000 lawsuits filed against businesses by a disability advocacy group were dismissed on February 17, 2017, by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge. The Arizona Attorney General requested dismissal of the consolidated cases, describing the complaints as identical “frivolous lawsuits filed by a serial litigator.”

Attorney General Mark Brnovich stated, “Arizona is not going to tolerate serial litigators who try to shake down small, hardworking businesses by exploiting the disability community.”

Any business seeking recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs for fighting the lawsuit must file an application with Judge David Talamante within a short period to be determined.

There is still a potential that the plaintiffs in the ADA lawsuits, Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID), will appeal the dismissals to a higher court.

Background

AID sued thousands of Maricopa County businesses in 2016, alleging generally that each business violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or the Arizonans with Disabilities Act (AzDA). The ADA and AzDA essentially require businesses that are open to the public - e.g., restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, retail merchants and others - to accommodate disabled people.

The laws require that, among other things, businesses have:

  • a certain number of accessible parking spots;

  • some percentage of accessible parking spots that are van accessible;

  • spaces between parking spots that meet stated requirements; and

  • the posting of certain signs, posted at a specific height.

Given these requirements, the AID lawsuits frequently targeted minor parking lot violations, such as lack of proper signage, the signs being an inch or two too low, or the spaces not being properly marked.

While meeting the accessibility requirements may be inexpensive and fairly easy, the problem for businesses has been that the laws allow prevailing plaintiffs to recover their attorneys’ fees from the violator. The AID lawsuits, all filed by plaintiffs’ attorney Peter Strojnik, demanded that the generally alleged violation be fixed and that the business pay $7,500 in attorneys’ fees. A media investigation revealed that the average AID settlement was $3,900. Although many business owners considered the lawsuits to be shakedowns, a number of them settled out of court to avoid the cost of a legal defense.

AID’s disability access lawsuits were part of a wave of these types of serial lawsuits aimed at alleged disability accessibility violations involving pool and spa lifts, bar and restaurant interiors, restrooms, etc. Mr. Strojnik told The Economist that 95% of Arizona businesses are not in full compliance with the hundreds of pages of technical requirements.

Attorney General Intervention. In August 2016, the Arizona Attorney General moved to intervene in one of the cases and then moved to consolidate, arguing that AID’s flood of lawsuits is “part of a concerted effort to improperly use the judicial system for its own enrichment” and calling the lawsuits a “systemic abuse of the judicial system.”

Compliance

If you want to make sure your business is ADA compliant, we suggest that you review the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design and/or consult with an experienced ADA compliance professional. Many of the fixes are easy to accomplish; if they are not readily achievable, the law contains certain exceptions.

Property owners who have received a demand letter or a complaint regarding ADA accessibility likely should consult with legal counsel about their rights and obligations.