By Chip Rogers, AAHOA President & CEO
The American judicial system is the product of over 200 years of thoughtful legal study and practice. By 1990, the year that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, the system had repealed centuries-old discriminatory statutes, established universal civil rights and unequivocally affirmed that even the president himself was not above the law.
But even the best system can be distorted and abused. Over the past 20 years, “serial plaintiffs,” assisted by opportunistic lawyers, have targeted restaurants, hotels and myriad other small businesses throughout the United States under the guise of forcing ADA compliance. Alleged violations run the gamut, from parking spaces painted the wrong shade of blue to disabled-access signs hung a few inches too low. But all the lawsuits have one thing in common: they aim for profit, not justice.
In the last 10 years, the volume of ADA lawsuits in American courts has climbed to pandemic proportions. A quick Google search turns up recent suits in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas. As attorney John Alan Doran said in a recent issue of the Phoenix Business Journal, these lawsuits – over 9,200 in 2014 and 2015 – leave little room for doubt that our system “is completely broken.”
Late last year, however, a small handful of representatives and law enforcement officials began taking steps to fight back. In October, U.S. Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) introduced the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 3765), which allows business owners 120 days to correct ADA noncompliance before facing legal action. Minnesota and Texas have both introduced state laws requiring would-be plaintiffs to notify businesses of alleged noncompliance and allow at least 90 days for necessary upgrades or repairs.
Perhaps most notably, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich voluntarily intervened in a suit filed in Arizona’s Maricopa County Superior Court, calling the suit “a matter of public importance,” and asked the judge to dismiss more than 1,000 similar suits – all filed by the dubiously named Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID).
AID’s modus operandi, unfortunately, is not unique. Since the ADA’s passage, there has been no shortage of individuals who aim to line their pockets at the expense of American small businesses – businesses for which a settlement of a few thousand dollars frequently spells doom. The fact that the inclusive spirit of the law has become eroded in their litigious, self-serving hands makes it all the more despicable.
At its core, the ADA is a well-intentioned law that AAHOA members and American business owners support wholeheartedly. It aims to eliminate discriminatory practices on the basis of disability and allow everyone to patronize businesses and public spaces. “Every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors,” President Bush declared when the ADA took effect on July 26, 1990.
As leaders of the hospitality industry, we must take action to protect our businesses so that all can have access, those with disabilities and those without. We must remain champions of the ADA while also protecting the spirit of the law from those who seek to abuse it for personal gain.