Valley businesses dispute 'advocacy' group's claim that most ADA lawsuits settle without money

PHOENIX - A self-proclaimed advocacy group that’s flooded the Valley with disability-access lawsuits is now claiming the majority of their cases don’t settle for money.

A spokesperson for Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) made the claim in response to a series of ABC15 investigative reports.  

“Just because we file a lawsuit does not mean we always settle,” AID’s Jennifer Rogers wrote in an email. “Most times there is no money.”

FULL COVERAGE: Cash for Compliance?

ABC15 has heard from dozens of business owners and spoken to multiple attorneys, who collectively represent hundreds of businesses in AID’s lawsuits. The owners and attorneys said that’s not accurate and doesn’t match their dealings with AID.

“I think she’s lying,” said Deanna France, a Mesa business owner sued by AID. “It’s all about the money.”  (Learn more about her case below and in the video above.)

AID has filed more than 1,500 lawsuits in Maricopa County since February. The group files lawsuits against businesses for alleged access violations in parking lots under the American with Disabilities Act.

For example, in many cases, AID has sued businesses – and demanded thousands to settle -- because their parking signs were a few inches below the 60-inch requirement.

Settlement agreements in AID’s lawsuits are confidential.

But many businesses have told ABC15 how much money they paid to settle cases. The amounts can range from $3,000 to $7,500.

UPDATE (8/19):  AID has disputed that settlement demands reach that much. On their Facebook page, people who said they own businesses or know owners have challenged AID about their denial of settlement demands. Some of those posts were deleted from AID’s page. But ABC15 captured the screen grab below of one person’s statement and AID’s response.

AID’s settlement demand letters have been filed in open court records for some lawsuits, showing a common demand is $7500 (See one example of an AID settlement letter further down this page and another here). ABC15 also interviewed businesses who are currently negotiating with AID.

Deanna and Morris France own and operate Extra Innings, an indoor baseball facility in Mesa. Their business was sued in early June without notice.

“Not a clue,” Deanna France said. “We had no idea.”

France said she was surprised because city inspectors signed off on their building and parking lot when they opened three years ago. Even more confusing, her business had more accessible parking spaces than required, she said.

“We are required to have six,” France said. “We have 10.”

So why did AID sue?

There were issues with the signs. France said a few signs were too low and a pair of her larger accessible spaces was missing a van-accessible notice.

“Originally, they wanted $10,000,” France said. “Then they were asking us to fix it and $7,500.”

France did fix and adjust her business’s signs. Their attorney then received a letter on August 3rd from AID’s lead attorney, Peter Strojnik.

It says, “…while remediation of the subject premises is admirable, we accumulate substantial expenses and costs.”

France said she offered $1,000 to close out the case. On August 10, she received another letter in return.

“Your offer does not give us much hope towards settlement,” Strojnik wrote. “I have authorized to decrease our demand by $500 as you have come up by $500. My client’s offer is $7,000.”

Deanna France said she doesn’t believe they offered $500 and isn’t sure why that was written in response.

Note: See both AID settlement letters below.

AID Settlement Letters by Dave Biscobing on Scribd

France said the whole experience has been frustrating.

“It’s so infuriating that they can get away with this,” she said. “I don’t think they give a hoot about compliance. I really don’t. I think they are about it for their pockets.”

France’s sentiments match those of many other businesses interviewed by ABC15.

“I really felt like I was haggling for a car or something,” said Steve Fisher, who owns an auto repair shop sued in early June.

Fisher said defending his business, Doug’s Bugs,  against a lawsuit and negotiating with AID has been difficult.

Fisher’s business was also hit for signage issues. One marked assessable space was missing a sign. Another spot had a parody sign that read “Not handicapped? Move your @*$%&* car.”

He said that spot is his mother-in-law’s unofficial spot.

“She’s a quadriplegic. She still has partial use of her hands. But she’s in a wheelchair,” Fisher said. “So we have an idea of the troubles that people go through.”

After Fisher said he corrected the issues, he had his attorney offer $1,500 to settle. AID didn’t accept, he said.

“Basically, they acted insulted by the $1,500 bucks and they went up,” he said. “Instead of $7,500, they went up over $10,000.”

Fisher said his experience speaks volumes.

“They are in it for the bucks,” he said. “It’s plain and simple. Deal with them on the level that we have and you’ll know why they are there – the money.”

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at dbiscobing@abc15.com.

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