WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would stop waves of drive-by lawsuits hitting businesses that allege violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The vote comes after the Denver7 Investigates team exposed attorneys whose motives are money, not improved accessibility.
The legislation, H.R. 620, passed 225-192. It was widely supported by Republicans, but also by 12 Democrats who represent districts that have been hit hard by the lawsuits.
If it clears the U.S. Senate as it's currently written, the bill would require someone to write a demand letter to a business with a general description of alleged ADA violations before they could file a lawsuit. The business would have 60 days to respond to the letter, then 60 days to remedy the violations -- 120 days total. If the business fails to do either, then the matter could go to court.
Disability advocates have fiercely opposed the bill, saying it would weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has been the law for roughly 28 years.
“Today’s vote was a defeat for civil rights," Faiz Shakir, national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement posted online Thursday. "This attempt to undermine the Americans with Disabilities Act is a damaging, unnecessary, and ill-conceived effort that should have been rejected by members of the House and should be dead on arrival in the Senate. The disability community should not have to fight through the bureaucratic red tape to enjoy basic liberties that others freely enjoy. This legislation further marginalizes one of the most excluded communities in society."
The bill's author, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), has repeatedly said that the goal of the legislation is to curb the frivolous lawsuits.
"Lawyers don't care if they ever fix the [ADA] problem or not -- they're interested in only a settlement," he said in an interview with the Denver7 Investigates team on Wednesday.
He reiterated what sued businesses have been saying for years -- that they want to improve accessibility, but are not experts on the hundreds of pages of technical design specifications dictated by ever-evolving updates to the ADA.
Poe said if businesses willfully ignore a demand letter to remedy ADA violations, they should rightfully get sued.
"It puts them on notice if they don't comply with whatever the violation is supposed to be, then the plaintiff can go to court," he said. "This legislation does not keep plaintiffs from going to court; it just gives them -- the defendants -- the opportunity to fix the problem before they get to court. And isn't that the fairest thing to do?"
This is the second time Poe has introduced the legislation. He said versions of it had been introduced five times altogether over the last several years. This is the first time it's ever reached the U.S. House floor.
Often, the violations are small, such as a toilet paper dispenser that's a few inches too high or too low, or a disabled parking lot sign that fails to include a tiny "van accessible" sign beneath it.
The Denver7 Investigates team, in collaboration with sister station ABC15 in Phoenix and KOB4 in Albuquerque, have reported on the lawsuits for nearly two years. Contrary to arguments by disability advocates, the federal and state court systems struggle to adjudicate the frivolous cases in a consistent manner.
In New Mexico, Alyssa Carton, the plaintiff with spina bifida who filed 99 ADA lawsuits against Albuquerque businesses, admitted she felt "used" by the Phoenix-based group that hired her. The group, Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID), is behind hundreds of ADA cases in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado.
Carton's cases were dismissed in U.S. District Court with prejudice. Her attorney, Sharon Pomeranz, forfeited her law license to avoid disciplinary proceedings by the New Mexico Disciplinary Board.
Carton and Pomeranz had both lied about their involvement with AID under oath. Denver7 and ABC15 also revealed how Carton and Pomeranz had signed secret contracts with AID outlining the cash incentives they had for filing more and more lawsuits.
Under the ADA, plaintiffs in disability litigation are not entitled to monetary damages, but their attorneys can seek settlements for attorney fees. AID typically sought attorney fees around $3,000 per case. Because of the cost and burden of battling a lawsuit in court, many businesses opted to settle lawsuits early on.
In another series of cases not attached to AID, an attorney in Florida opted to drop a lawsuit against a Bailey, Colorado restaurant without seeking proof that the business had remedied minor ADA violations. The case initially sought a $15,000 attorney fee settlement, according to the restaurant's owner, who was able to secure an attorney who fought his case pro bono.
It's unclear if H.R. 620 will move through the U.S. Senate swiftly, where similar legislation has also been proposed.