A new cottage industry threatens small business

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by Alfredo Ortiz

A new cottage industry built on frivolous lawsuits and the destruction of small businesses and franchises is taking root across the country. These reckless legal advances have been coined drive-by-lawsuits or, in some cases, Google-lawsuits, and have largely gone unnoticed by the public.

The genesis of the problem was the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) – legislation that created thousands of new regulatory mandates for businesses in an attempt to prevent discriminatory acts against disabled Americans. These include regulations that stipulate the width of parking spaces, height of mirrors, and angle of wheelchair ramps to name a few examples. Although the law is well intentioned and has furthered civil rights in the U.S., the sheer number and specificity of mandates make it almost impossible to comply with them entirely – which leaves businesses open to frivolous legal attacks.

A new class of activist lawyers are now masquerading as “defenders of disabled Americans” to enrich themselves at the expense of vulnerable small businesses through participating in drive-by- and Google-lawsuits. These legal predators – along with their recruited plaintiffs – either drive by businesses or simply use Google Maps to seek out ADA violations without stepping foot on the respective property. They then proceed to file suit against the business owners and drain them of their already modest revenue stream.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a well-intentioned law that furthered civil rights in the United States by expanding accessibility for and prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities. The law contains thousands of regulations that stipulate, for example, the width of parking spaces, the height of mirrors, and the angle of wheelchair ramps. However, the sheer volume of regulatory mandates in the bill provides unscrupulous lawyers with a number of avenues through which to target small business owners with frivolous legal attacks.

While these frivolous lawsuits are occurring across the country, some places are worse than others.

In some states, the monetary burden can be especially damaging. For example, in California, targeted small business owners are not only required to cover legal fees and remodeling costs, but are also responsible for a minimum of $4,000 in damages each time a disabled person had visited the property – even if they were unaffected by the violation or hadn’t noticed it at all.

Fortunately, legislation has already been proposed that would stop this. The ADA Education and Reform Act (HR 620) – which was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year – would require plaintiffs to send written notice of a violation to the business and give them ample time to address the issue before taking further legal action. Not only will this legislation ensure ADA compliance, but it will give small businesses a chance to fix their mistakes – which were likely unbeknownst to them – before being forced into bankruptcy.

The Americans with Disabilities Act represents an overarching concept in the United States that everyone should be treated equally and fairly – and rightly so. But by slightly tweaking the legal procedure associated with the ADA, the incentive for predatory lawyers to take advantage of loopholes in the law can be eliminated – all while continuing to abide by the spirit of the original ADA legislation that aimed to protect disabled Americans from discrimination.

This move would be a win-win policy that benefits all Americans

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