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Reporter's Notebook: The LATEST in ABC15's ADA lawsuit investigation

Posted: 2:40 PM, Oct 04, 2016
Updated: 2016-11-11 18:57:21Z

NOVEMBER 10, 2016

Taxing questions -- Valley attorneys and business owners are raising questions about the non-profit status of a controversial group that’s become the nation’s most prolific filer of disability lawsuits.

Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) has filed more than 1,700 lawsuits in the Phoenix area since February.

Almost all of the lawsuits are filed over signage issues in parking lots and allege violations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In those lawsuits, AID prominently touted its status as an official 501c3 charitable foundation.

But in its application for non-profit tax-exempt status, an ABC15 investigation found that AID didn’t tell the IRS that it would be filing lawsuits or funding itself through litigation.

Read the full report

NOVEMBER 4, 2016

What’s the status?  – There’s a lot of moving parts in the AID / AG case right now.

This week, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge David Talamante held a status conference to set deadlines and get both sides in line for what’s to come.

Here’s a rundown:

- In late October, AID filed a motion for a one-size-fix-all approach to amend more than a 1,000 of their previous lawsuits. That motion asked the court to add new plaintiffs onto AID’s cases in an apparent attempt to fix legal standing issues.  Judge Talamante said he was inclined to deny that motion.

- AID also had asked the court to force the Attorney General’s Office to conduct periodic inspections . The judge said that he’s unlikely to allow that and told AID they would need to file a separate lawsuit.

- It’s clear the Attorney General’s Office is going to file for some sort of mass dismissal of AID’s consolidated cases (more than 1,200 of them). When? Well, the judge needs to officially rule on the first two bullet points above. After those rulings, the AG will have 10 days to file their motion to dismiss. No matter what happens, expect appeals.

 

- It’s also clear the Attorney General’s Office is going to file for sanctions against AID. What are sanctions? Basically, legal discipline handed out by the court. In this week’s hearing, state officials said they plan to file for a variety of sanctions later on in the case based on AID’s conduct. If you’ve been following our coverage, AID’s attorneys (Peter Strojnik and Fabian Zazueta) have been sanctioned before – by the federal court – for “bad-faith” conduct and “bait-and-switch” tactics. 

NOVEMBER 2, 2016

New map – Want to see what more than 1,700 lawsuits look like?

Go here .

We’ve mapped the addresses for every case AID has filed in Maricopa County Superior Court.

In the interactive map, you'll find details about each lawsuit, including case numbers, filing dates, addresses, and links to AID audit reports.

NOVEMBER 1, 2016

Legal wrangling – The Arizona Attorney General’s Office has responded to new motions recently filed by AID that attempted to correct possible deficiencies with 1200+ of its lawsuits and force the state to periodically inspect businesses.

The AG’s office opposed much of what AID asked a judge. Here’s the state’s latest court filing and exhibits .

Late last month, AID filed a motion to try and add new defendants to the case. (The newest plaintiff they want to add is a man named Fernando Gastelum)

For more information on those motions and defendants read my October 25th notebook entry below, plus this story , and also this story .

There’s a status conference in the AID / AG case on Thursday, Nov. 3.  We should have a better idea of where things stand after the hearing. 

OCTOBER 29, 2016

Flip-flop -- The country’s most prolific ADA serial suers are now backing off on plans to add a pair of new plaintiffs to more than 1,200 of their lawsuits.

Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) filed a motion with a court last week, seeking to add two brothers to their cases in an apparent attempt to try and approve the group’s legal standing.

AID said the brothers, Jason and Danny Thomas, were also going to re-inspect businesses that the group already sued.

Read the story.

OCTOBER 28, 2016

Settle up – We’ve learned that Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) is sending out some new (lower) settlement offers to businesses wrapped up in the 1200-case intervention by the Attorney General’s Office.

ABC15 has heard the new offer is about $1,750 .

Could this be that AID is looking to collect on as many of these cases as possible before the AG’s office files for a mass-dismissal of the lawsuits?  The cases will also likely be tied up for months. 

AID attorney Peter Strojnik told me yesterday he will no longer communicate with me. He also said that I’m “expressly forbidden” from reaching out to his clients. 

OCTOBER 26, 2016

Guest opinion – In light of all the news surrounding ADA serial lawsuits, ABC15 published a guest editorial from Phil Pangrazio, President of ABILITY360, a leading disability organization.

Here’s an excerpt:
Businesses feel extorted by a disingenuous plaintiff and attorney who never actually intended to patronize the business. It appears that AID is driving from one zip code to another, photographing parking lots at shopping centers, strip malls, small property owners, and other “mom & pop” types looking for ADA violations.

This is a real dilemma for the disability community. Yes, we want more access to business, so ADA enforcement is a good thing, especially for businesses that have ignored compliance for 26 years. Alternatively, the high volume of lawsuits is giving the ADA a black eye and businesses are shamelessly fighting back.            

Read the full editorial. 

OCTOBER 25, 2016

One-size-fix-all --The controversial group that’s filed large batches of disability lawsuits is re-inspecting businesses and hoping a judge will allow a one-size-fix-all approach to correct potential deficiencies in more than 1200 cases.

Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) is also pushing back against the Attorney General’s Office by seeking a court order to force the state agency to conduct periodic inspections for compliance under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Read the story

OCTOBER 20, 2016

Who’s who? -- ABC15 has been investigating Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities for months. Our “Cash for Compliance?” investigation includes a lot of players and attorneys.

To help keep the names and faces straight, we are providing the pictures and bios for the people connected to AID.

Check the right column on the front page of our special section .

OCTOBER 19, 2016

Money man -- A controversial “advocacy” group filing huge batches of disability lawsuits has received substantial funding from a Valley entrepreneur with a complicated past, involving personal tragedy and multiple investigations for consumer fraud.

His name is Gregory Crane, and he did not want to be named by ABC15.

The 52-year-old Scottsdale man has provided more than $600,000 and office space to Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID).  Crane said he also provides advice to the group.

Read the full story: Valley man funding 'advocacy' group has complicated past with tragedy, consumer fraud investigations

OCTOBER 18, 2016

Arguing both sides -- A controversial “advocacy” group that’s filed more than 1,700 disability-access lawsuits has hired an outside law firm to handle unprecedented legal challenges from the Attorney General’s Office and some federal judges. 

ABC15 learned the law firm has also represented businesses sued by the same group and another serial plaintiff before. 

Read the full story: Controversial 'advocacy' group's outside attorneys have argued on both sides of serial ADA lawsuits

OCTOBER 17, 2016

Incoming!  – With legal challenges mounting and more than 1,000 of their cases currently frozen by a judge, Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) said it plans to re-inspect businesses involved in open lawsuits.

In a press release , AID said:  “AID is actively and aggressively assisting a growing number of its 3rd party association members who are now in the process of first inspecting the same addresses of the 1,289 consolidated cases which AID previously discovered external ADA violations and have continued to fight AID against becoming their locations compliant. These new inspections by 3rd parties using improved practices are being performed by individuals with strong “standing” will NOT just be limited to exterior parking compliance but will also include a thorough interior inspection for all ADA violations.”

“I know AID, its association members and or associates etc. will never give up.  They are not quitters and this is NOT about money, it’s about compliance,” according to Alex Callan, who the release refers to as AID’s de facto representative.  

Callan has previously identified himself to ABC15 as a legal assistant. In the release, AID claims he is a volunteer.

So, why is AID doing this? It’s probably because a federal judge said AID didn’t properly bring a lawsuit in federal court. The Attorney General also has challenged AID’s cases and is working to get them dismissed.

***ALSOTUNE IN TO ABC15 NEWS AT 6:30 TONIGHT (OCT. 17) FOR A NEW STORY ABOUT AID.

OCTOBER 14, 2016

Federal judge lays down law -- In a new decision, a judge ruled that a controversial group filing huge batches of disability-access lawsuits does not have standing to bring cases in federal court and scolded the group’s attorneys.

Judge Murray Snow issued the order Thursday. 

It’s a decision that could have broader implications as Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) fights unprecedented legal battles in state and federal court.

Read the full story:  Judge tosses ADA serial suer's case out of federal court, sanctions attorneys

OCTOBER 10, 2016

Who’s at the top? – AID is not only facing pressure from the Attorney General (see below entries), they’re getting pushback from federal judges to prove why it is allowed to file ADA lawsuits.

Without getting too complicated, AID has filed a lot of lawsuits without listing a person as a plaintiff. Instead, AID is suing on behalf of itself. Example: Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities vs. Business X.

Can an organization be harmed by a parking lot sign that’s too low? Does that give AID the right to sue? In legal terms, does AID have “standing” to bring a lawsuit? That’s what a few federal judges are asking AID to prove by issuing what’s called an “Order to Show Cause.”

I went to a recent hearing (Sept. 29) when AID was arguing why it should be allowed to bring cases. In the hearing, I heard something that caught my attention.

On the stand, one of AID’s in-house lawyers, Fabian Zazueta, was being questioned by Judge Murray Snow. Snow asked him who are AID’s shareholders.

 Zazueta claimed he didn’t know.

Judge Snow hasn’t ruled yet about AID’s standing to bring these cases. I’m told it could happen any day.

OCTOBER 5, 2016 (second update)

‘Judge shopping’ request denied -- The Arizona Court of Appeals denied a “judge shopping” request filed by a so-called advocacy group that’s flooded the Phoenix area with disability-access lawsuits.

Presiding Judge Kent E. Cattani issued the ruling Wednesday.

To see the full report: Court rejects 'judge shopping' move by ADA group

OCTOBER 5, 2016

Document dump – We’ve learned “Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities" (AID) went to the Attorney General’s Office last week and dumped about 20 boxes filled with thousands of alleged ADA complaints.

Why did AID do it? To send a message.

Let’s just say AID and the Attorney General’s Office don’t agree about how the ADA should be enforced. AID has filed at least 1,700 ADA lawsuits this year and considers itself a “private attorney general.” Attorney General Mark Brnovich disagrees. He believes AID is “abusing” and “misusing” the legal system to get quick settlements.

Related story: AZ Attorney General taking stand against controversial ‘advocacy’ group

Brnovich believes it’s his office’s official responsibility to enforce ADA law not some self-appointed entity. Right now, AID and the AG are also locked in an unprecedented legal battle to decide just that. 

So far, the AG’s office successfully got a superior court judge to let the state intervene in AID lawsuits and consolidate more than a thousand of them into a single case. It’s setting the stage for a possible dismissal of all AID lawsuits.  The judge also barred AID from filing new cases until legal issues are all worked out.

As for the boxes of complaints, the AG’s office is currently reviewing them. We’ll check back with the state in what’s going on with all of this soon.

Is AID expanding? Hiring? -- If you caught the end of one of our stories last week, we reported that Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) posted some job opportunities in neighboring states. The postings were posted on indeed.com, seeking office staff, advocates, and attorneys to bring ADA cases in Denver, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas.

We also found similar job posts on craigslist that appear to be from AID as well.

The jobs are being posted as Arizona officials increase scrutiny of AID. Not only has the Attorney General’s Office stepped in; state and federal judges have made several recent rulings and orders that have curbed AID’s lawsuits.

Is AID getting out of Dodge? Or are they simply following through on their promise to grow into a national operation? That’s what AID has said before.

AID’s lead attorney, Peter Strojnik, told us months ago that they planned to bring cases all across the country. He even threw out a huge number of anticipated cases -- 100,000 lawsuits.

It looks like AID isn’t only posting jobs online, they are also going to local events and handing out fliers. Someone also sent us a copy of a flyer (below), which was handed out at a recent event in the Valley. The flyer promises up to $65,000 per year.

AID Job Flyer by Dave Biscobing on Scribd

OCTOBER 4, 2016 --  **First entry**

Wow!  A LOT has happened in two months.

In early August, we launched our investigation into a controversial group flooding the Valley with disability-access lawsuits. Since, it’s been hard to keep up with all of the official action, public reaction, and developments.

I’ve heard from many of you: business owners, attorneys, viewers and readers. Many of you want to know what’s happening now and what’s going to happen next.

That’s why I’m setting up this page.

Consider this a rolling blog, where I’ll post updates, new interesting details, recent court decisions impacting the issue, and my latest reports.

If you need to catch up on our investigation, all of our stories can be found at ABC15.com/lawsuits.

Here’s a very brief breakdown of what’s happened so far:

We broke a series of stories about a group called “Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities,” or AID.  So far, they’ve sued more than 1700 businesses in the Valley, alleging violations in parking lots under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They cruise parking lots looking for violations and the majority of their lawsuits target signage issues. A sign inches too low? AID sues and demands thousands to settle . We exposed an ironic surprise about AID and uncovered how some of their statements don’t add up – literally. Our investigation also revealed mistakes in their cases. Some AID officials have resigned . The Arizona State Bar is investigating AID’s lead attorney. In response to our reports, the Attorney General’s Office got involved and is taking steps to stop these lawsuits. U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake also introduced a bill to curb “trolls” from “abusing” the ADA. State lawmakers are also working to craft a bill to address issues in Arizona law.

As always – if you have any questions, concerns, thoughts, or updates - contact me at dbiscobing@abc15.com .

Check back regularly for new posts, and thanks for reading.

Dave Biscobing
ABC15 Investigative Reporter