Posted August 28 2001
South Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board
The Americans with Disabilities Act has been hijacked by trial lawyers who are using it to drum up legal fees. Congress and the courts need to put an end to this outrage, and restore the ADA to its rightful purpose of helping the disabled, rather than enriching a handful of attorneys.
In the last five years, 1,800 federal lawsuits have been brought in South Florida alone alleging ADA violations. The targets generally are small businesses that don't have the resources to battle back in court.
Lawsuits also have become common in California, Hawaii and Oregon, as more and more attorneys learn the tricks of the trade.
Under the ADA, businesses in violation of the law's regulations are responsible for the plaintiff's legal fees. So attorneys seek out ADA violations, which are often minor, and file suit on behalf of a disabled person with whom they are associated.
The violations may be cheap to fix, but the attorneys' fees can end up costing thousands of dollars. Rather than fight in court at an even greater cost, most owners of small businesses opt instead to cut their losses and settle the lawsuits, giving in to what amounts to legal extortion.
Some advocates for the disabled insist these lawsuits are the only way to force compliance with the ADA. Their claim would be a lot more believable if lawyers weren't filing identical lawsuits that are often full of errors, and if efforts were made to work with businesses owners to correct violations before suing.
U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, has been pushing a good piece of legislation that would protect the disabled, but at the same time stop the rip-off. The measure would give businesses 90 days to fix violations or make substantial efforts to comply before a lawsuit could be filed.
The legal threat would still be available to force recalcitrant business owners to bring their properties into ADA compliance. Those who cooperate in addressing the violations, however, would be spared the substantial expense of legal fees.
The courts, like Foley, also have been weighing in on the side of common sense. A federal appellate court has ruled that only people who plan to return to a specific establishment have standing to sue. And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that businesses voluntarily fixing violations after a suit is filed are off the hook for the plaintiff's legal expenses.
The ADA, passed in 1990, was landmark
civil rights legislation. Congress and the courts have power to curtail
the legal abuse that's sullying the ADA's reputation, and they shouldn't
hesitate to use it.
Copyright © 2001, South Florida
Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel