They call themselves Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities - AID for short.
On its website, videos show AID giving out things like a special therapeutic brace, a scooter, and a window air conditioning unit.
That’s not controversial.
But what is controversial is how AID makes money. In the past six months, AID has filed more than 1,000 cases alleging disability access violations in the parking lots of Valley businesses.
The Americans with Disability Act requires certain buildings, businesses and commercial facilities to have a certain amount of accessible parking spots, the correct space between spots, and proper signage at a specific height.
But if businesses are even slightly out of compliance -- a sign just an inch or two low – AID has sued and demanded thousands to settle the case.
AID officials claim their work is advocacy.
But businesses, lawmakers, and other advocacy groups say what they’re doing is an abuse of the system, a form of extortion, and harming the disability community.
Who is AID?
On AID’s website, the group calls itself “civil rights champions.”
AID was originally formed in January under the name Advocates for American Disabled Individuals. However, the group changed its name months later after discovering their name could be considered offensive (Here’s why).
AID officials also said their organization is a charity. It filed for non-profit status with the IRS earlier this year and said it was approved in July.
AID has filed lawsuits under multiple entities, making the exact number of cases hard to track. However, ABC15 has found more than 1,000 lawsuits have been filed in Maricopa County since February.
For the first several months of operation, AID’s star plaintiff was a man named David Ritzenthaler.
“As disabled people we don’t have a voice,” said Ritzenthaler, during an interview at his home.
Ritzenthaler , 74, said he had hip surgery last August. He’s also a self-proclaimed minister and considers his lawsuits for AID a public service.
“I love what (they’re) doing,” he said.
Ritzenthaler has filed 530 lawsuits on behalf of AID against businesses in Maricopa County, court records show.
Has he been to all of those businesses? No.
AID’s lead attorney, Peter Strojnik, said that’s not a requirement. The ADA requires that a person with a disability only has to be informed of a violation before they can sue. Courts have allowed plaintiffs to use this legal standard to file serial lawsuits.
AID has hired people to cruise parking lots across the Valley, using a checklist to identify potential violations.
All of the lawsuits are nearly identical except for the business name and address. The complaints make general allegations, and hundreds of cases reviewed by ABC15 show that specific violations aren’t listed.
“They’re copy and paste jobs,” said attorney Lindsay Leavitt, who represents nearly 150 businesses that have been sued. “It’s just a conveyor belt of lawsuits.”
Serial ADA plaintiffs have popped in states across the country, often filing a few dozen cases and then moving on.
But AID is applying the method at an unprecedented rate, and Strojnik said they plan to file 100,000 lawsuits across the country.
AID is also trying something that legal experts said is new.
Their plaintiff, David Ritzenthaler, stopped putting his name on lawsuits in mid-May. (He said he’s now serving as a director for the group). Instead, AID is now suing on behalf of itself without a person listed as a plaintiff.
“This is so new. It’s never been done,” Strojnik said. “And we intend to see it through.”
Money or compliance?
AID believes that any violation is discrimination.
When asked if a missing van notice or a sign that’s just a few inches too low is worth a lawsuit, attorney Peter Strojnik responded, “Oh yes.”
Strojnik said AID is trying to affect a change that hasn’t occurred since the ADA was passed. But businesses that have been sued consider the lawsuits “shakedowns” and “extortion.”
Bob Curtis, who owns an auto parts and repair show in Mesa, was sued and has hired a lawyer to defend his case.
His violation? “I didn’t have a van accessible sign,” he said. For missing the small sign, Curtis said AID demanded $5,000 to settle.
“A $50 sign for $5,000,” he said. “I think its extortion.”
Business attorney Lindsay Leavitt, who is not representing Curtis, said AID appears to have a goal of reaching quick settlements.
“Oftentimes, it’s just cheaper and more cost efficient to settle a case then to prove you are right in court,” Leavitt said.
ABC15 has learned settlements often range from $3,000 to $7,000. If multiplied by hundreds – and soon to be thousands – of cases, the lawsuits add up to millions of dollars.
But AID said it’s not about money. It’s about compliance. In fact, AID officials have repeatedly accused attorneys hired by business as the ones who are “lining their pockets.” A spokesperson also criticized businesses that hired lawyers to defend the lawsuits instead of calling AID first.
For months, AID filed lawsuits against businesses without notice.
But business owners said if the goal is compliance, why wouldn’t AID send a notification asking for fixes before suing.
That’s a question ABC15 asked AID attorney Peter Strojnik during an interview. He said they’ve had plenty of notice.
“Don’t act surprised and say you didn’t know. Oh you knew, since 1991,” he said, referring to the year the ADA passed.
But the day after the interview, AID sent ABC15 an email titled “Processes improved immediately,” saying they planned to mail out letters to businesses informing them of upcoming inspections in their area. Thousands of the same form letter were mass-mailed to addresses in certain zip codes.
AID said that any criticism of their methods is unwarranted.
“This is something incredibility good,” Strojnik said. “Somehow you want to make all of it sound really bad. Well let me tell you this, there is nothing bad there. There is no there, there.”
Other advocates denounce AID’s methods
Several prominent organizations that serve people with disabilities and have deep roots in the community are denouncing AID’s methods.
“People with disabilities don’t want more lawsuits,” said Phil Pangrazio, executive director of Ability 360.
While disability access is a concern in Arizona and across the country, many advocates are concerned the methods AID is using will actually have an adverse effect by causing lawmakers to aggressively change the law to curb the flood of lawsuits.
Pangrazio said he worries that an over-correction could make it harder for people with disabilities in the long run.
“We do feel that type of high frequency lawsuit filing is giving the ADA a bad name,” Pangrazio said.
Larry Wagner, director for Arizona Statewide Independent Living Council, called AID’s approach an “abuse of the system.”
Wagner and other advocates also fear that the newly-formed AID will damage the relationships that their groups have developed with the business community for decades.
“It harms all of our efforts,” said John Moore, director of Marc Community Resources Inc., an organization formed half a century ago with dozens of locations around the Valley.
When pressed about what it says about AID when other well-known advocacy groups refused to support its work, attorney Peter Strojnik responded with a bold statement.
“It says we are going to be the most effective advocacy group of any advocacy group that has ever existed,” he said.
ABC15 finds ‘non-compliance’ at AID buildings
ABC15 checked two addresses connected to AID for ADA compliance. The addresses include the location where AID has its settlement checks mailed and another location where AID employees work.
At both locations, reporters found the same issues that AID has sued hundreds of businesses for and demanded thousands in settlements, including obvious ones like signs too low, no signs and not a single van accessible notice. ABC15 also discovered the parking lots didn’t have proper access lanes.
ABC15 walked into one of the building’s lobby and asked to speak with AID about the parking lots. Two employees came out, AID spokesperson Jennifer Rogers and Alex Callan, who identified himself as a legal assistant.
“I don’t know if you know this, but this is not a place of public accommodation,” Callan said.
Callan said that is why their location is not subject to ADA requirements. But ABC15 spoke to ADA experts who said that may not be accurate.
The two buildings where ABC15 found AID operating both rent to multiple businesses that are places of public accommodation. The ADA also has requirements for commercial facilities and office buildings, experts said.
The news station’s inspection of AID’s locations occurred on Monday, July 25. Three days later, ABC15 returned with an independent ADA compliance expert to review the locations. .
AID sent out a female employee to record the inspection. The woman was walking along until she broke her shoe and then got into her car. She began driving closely behind and next to the reporter and expert while recording on a cell phone. At times, she swerved near ABC15’s crew.
On July 29, the day after ABC15’s second inspection, AID posted this press release, saying it is working with the landlord, who it hasn’t sued, to fix the issues.
In the release, AID said it couldn’t find any buildings to work from that were in compliance.
When ABC15 asked why the advocacy group wouldn’t hold the buildings where it operates to the same standards as the thousands it’s sued.
Rogers and Callan didn’t answer the question. They paused, looked at each and then smiled before Callan asked, “Would you guys like to leave?”
When ABC15 was walking out, Callan left a reporter with a final thought.
“Your story is garbage news,” he said. “You’re making an embarrassment of your news station.”
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at firstname.lastname@example.org.