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Businesses complain about suits over disabled access

Gary Walker claims he was the victim of a
Gary Walker claims he was the victim of a "cottage industry" of lawsuits against businesses alleging violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. — Gary Walker was horrified when legal documents arrived at his small restaurant notifying him that he was being sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law that requires wheelchair ramps and other features for the disabled.

The feeling turned to anger when Walker found out the man suing him, Shiloh Hobleman, had filed a series of practically carbon-copy lawsuits against more than a dozen small businesses in the area.

“Hobleman is what can only be characterized as a `serial plaintiff,”’ Walker’s lawyer said in court papers. “Except for the named defendants, each of the ADA complaints is virtually, if not exactly, identical to the instant suit — right down to the typographical and grammatical errors.”

Around the country, business owners, judges and politicians are complaining that employers are being hit with a spray of “drive-by” ADA lawsuits that they say are little more than shakedown attempts by lawyers hoping for a quick cash settlement.

Those who are covered under the ADA say the lawsuits are necessary to get business owners to make their buildings more accessible. Among other things, the 1990 federal law requires ramps, parking stalls and signs, and dictates the height of countertops, the placement of toilet grab bars and the width of doors.

But some judges have suggested that a large number of ADA lawsuits are frivolous actions filed by a small number of disabled people and their lawyers. And a Florida congressman plans to reintroduce a bill to address what he sees as a serious problem.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell of Orlando, Fla., noted in a ruling last year that Jorge Luis Rodriguez, a paraplegic, had filed some 200 ADA lawsuits in just a few years, most of them using the same attorney.

“The current ADA lawsuit binge is, therefore, essentially driven by economics — that is the economics of attorney’s fees,” Presnell wrote. He said Rodriguez’s testimony left the impression that he is a “professional pawn in a scheme to bilk attorney’s fees” from those being sued.

In December, a federal judge in Los Angeles said a man who filed hundreds of lawsuits accusing businesses of violating the ADA was running an extortion scam. The judge barred the plaintiff, Jarek Molski, from bringing any more lawsuits without court permission.

Molski, who has used a wheelchair since he was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident a decade ago, has filed 400 suits since 1998 against restaurants, wineries, bowling alleys, banks and other places. In most cases, the judge said, Molski demands $4,000 a day until the target of his suit is brought into compliance with ADA, then agrees to a cash settlement.

James Lawson of Stillwater, Okla., who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, said such lawsuits are needed. He said he has filed 26 of them after talking to business owners and complaining to the Justice Department without results.

“Even though I’m in a wheelchair full time I still want to be independent and enjoy life to the best of my ability,” he said. Lawson said he found his lawyer through an advocacy group for the disabled, and insisted: “I am in no way being used as a pawn by the law firm. I in no way profit from this. I’m an honorable person.”

Eric Holland of the Justice Department’s Disability Rights Division said the government takes every ADA complaint seriously and resolved 360 of them last year.

In Oklahoma, the phenomenon has led the Oklahoma Restaurant Association to post a warning on its Web site about attorneys hiring disabled people to seek out ADA violations.

Hobleman’s attorney, Ted Vrana, dismissed suggestions that he filed Hobleman’s ADA lawsuits simply to collect the legal fees. “I think the law is intended to assist the disabled people,” Vrana said. “And if the business doesn’t comply, as I read the law, there is a strict liability.”

Hobleman does not have a listed number and could not be reached for comment.

Hobleman, who uses a wheelchair, charged that the bathroom faucets in Walker’s restaurant did not comply with the ADA, the “Handicapped Accessible” sign was in the wrong place, and a handicapped parking spot was not marked properly.

Walker fixed the problems, and a federal judge refused to let Hobleman’s lawyer recover money from Walker for legal fees.

Many store owners, however, agree to fix the problems and pay the legal fees simply to avoid going to court.

“You can’t just ignore the lawsuit,” Walker said. “The sad part of it is there’s got to be thousands of small businesses, if not tens of thousands, that have already paid these attorneys just because they were horrified about having to go to federal court.”

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