Full-court press

Fighting for disabled access—50 lawsuits at a time

Lawsuits are on the rise, but disabled plaintiffs now will have to prove intentional discrimination to collect the most-generous awards.

Lawsuits are on the rise, but disabled plaintiffs now will have to prove intentional discrimination to collect the most-generous awards.

George Louie’s name can send shivers up the spines of business owners. A notorious litigant, Louie boasts that he’s forced more than 47,000 business locations to improve access for those with disabilities. He says he focuses on cases “you can hang your hat on,” those that may settle for little money but obligate businesses to come into compliance with 30 years of state and federal accessibility law. “I’d rather have a consent decree that gets a thousand banks fixed than to have $100,000,” he said by phone.

He was referring to a settlement that obligated every U.S. Bank in the country to provide the legal number of handicapped parking spaces, lower their teller windows and provide paths for wheelchairs.

As an amputee who’s lost a leg, Louie sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around. He said he sees access violations all the time. “There are so many, thousands of them,” he said. “I’m not making a killing on these cases. I’m getting a lot of respect and a lot of places fixed up.”

He’s also settling some scores. Louie has filed “grudge suits” against businesses that he said wouldn’t work with him amicably or were downright insulting.

Louie’s critics don’t see him as such a hero. Louie so far has filed more than 50 suits in Sacramento’s branch of the state Superior Court in 2006—21 on one June day alone. Though defendants routinely refuse to discuss pending litigation or past settlement fees, one referred to Louie’s tactics as “extortion.”

In the June cases, the defendants are diverse, including a paint company, a heavy-equipment retailer, a flooring company, a trucking company, and one hospital; a lot of their cases look strikingly similar. Numerous suits point out minor infractions in parking lots. For instance, an otherwise well-marked handicap spot doesn’t include its small, requisite “van accessible parking” sign, or correctly striped “No parking” zones aren’t painted with the words “No parking.”

Kim Blackseth, an Oakland-based ADA consultant, who is himself disabled, noted that this requirement only applies to a tiny percentage of businesses anyway. It only went into effect in 2002.

For such “technical” violations, Louie claimed physical discomfort, physical injury, emotional distress and mental suffering. It’s a long list. Somewhere in each of these cases, Louie asked not only for the state’s statutory minimum of $4,000, but also for attorneys’ fees and damages adding up to $48,000.

“That is just a boilerplate complaint,” Louie said. “Look at complaint after complaint and that’s the number. … It’s gone unchanged for years.” Louie said cases filed must ask for at least $25,000, but he settles them for much less.

Louie finds so many violations partly because state and federal accessibility laws are so complex and restrictive. Businesses have to meet standards addressed in the Americans with Disabilities Act, California’s Unruh Act and the California Disabled Persons Act. Even architects, general contractors and code inspectors fail to know the law. And business owners who believe they’ve met every legal obligation still find themselves the targets of expensive lawsuits.

“Some people refer to it as legal extortion,” said defense attorney Kelly Lynch, who could not speak about specific cases. She said she’s seen accessibility lawsuits settle for tens of thousands of dollars. “But it’s the law,” she said. “Until the law changes, there’s not a lot we can do if you’re not compliant.”

To fix some of the confusion, California is rethinking its building code. Blackseth recently was appointed by the governor to the California Building Standards Commission so that federal ADA standards can be worked into California’s state code.

Though businesses, especially small businesses, can be unintentionally out of compliance, the law never has made exceptions for ignorance—until now. A recent appellate-court decision raised the issue of intent, signaling that the courts are growing impatient with suits that target businesses for unintentional and harmless infractions.

In the case of David Gunther v. John Lin, California appellate Judge P.J. Sills determined that a plaintiff must prove intentional discrimination to ask for $4,000 under the Unruh Act. If he can’t prove intent, he only can sue for $1,000 under the California Disabled Persons Act.

“[Gunther] elected to try to obtain the larger statutory-minimum penalty. … That penalty is reserved for intentional violations,” reads the opinion.

Blackseth has noticed the courts becoming less patient with litigants like Louie. “Gunther was a reaction by the courts to these issues,” he said. But even with smaller damage claims, he thinks plaintiffs will continue to sue. “Damages are a really small component,” he said.

These cases can cost big businesses millions of dollars, but the money usually is spent in legal fees and the cost of fixing the violations, which has led to the general opinion that trail attorneys are the ones who benefit from advocates like Louie, who sue as many as 50 businesses a year.

Though business owners often feel that the law is unfair, attempts to change it have failed. One of the most recent, by Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, would have kept plaintiffs from suing for damages if violations were merely technical. Leslie pulled the bill for edits after advocates claimed it would erode their rights, and never submitted it again.

Since then, Blackseth and Lynch said that no legislator has been anxious to appear discriminatory by limiting accessibility laws. “Nobody wants a guy in a wheelchair protesting in front of his office,” Blackseth said.

Though the court’s new interpretation of state law threatens to lop a few thousand dollars from each of Louie’s claims, he’s not concerned. He’d brought suits before the statutory minimum was set at $4,000, he said, and he will continue. “A lot of times, we just go for compliance. If they’re nice and they work with us, we’ll dismiss cases.”