State lawmakers tackle frivolous ADA lawsuits

Heather Crawford tells us how the new bill could help protect local businesses and help people with disabilities

A bill designed to protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits and help improve accessibility for those with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in Florida could soon become law. On Tuesday, the Florida Senate voted 37-to-0 on House Bill 727, sending it to Gov. Rick Scott's desk for final approval.

HB 727 was filed by Rep. Tom Leek of Daytona Beach in February. A part of it is designed to "give courts the necessary tools to reject attorneys' fees and costs to drive-by litigants" who claim businesses aren't following ADA guidelines, according to a press release.

"There are a series of lawsuits called either Google lawsuits or drive-by lawsuits where plaintiffs and plantiffs' attorneys drive around the state... and then they file the same cookie-cutter lawsuit hundreds of times [and] they will allege just a litany of different [ADA] violations," Leek said. "The process ends with them getting attorney's fees." 

Congress enacted the ADA back in 1990. It requires all public places to be accessible by people with disabilities. ADA lawsuits filed in the U.S. have doubled in the past six years, Leek said. In Florida, nearly 6,000 ADA-compliance suits have been filed since 2012.

"We are here to make businesses understand their legal responsibility and provide relief for the disabled," said Robert Gibson, a lawyer who represents plaintiffs who have filed several ADA lawsuits.

"The disabled community is massive and incredibly diverse, and unfortunately businesses everywhere, continue to break the law."

One of those suits was filed against Mike Walters, a double amputee himself and local business owner who owns Ocean Sands Beach Inn in St. Augustine. He was sued by Howard Cohan, who has filed more than 1,000 ADA compliant lawsuits.

In the suit, which was first reported by First Coast News last May, Cohan said he has spinal stenosis, a disability under the ADA. It also said he works as a "tester" where he visits businesses and files suits against those that are not compliant with ADA standards. Walters said these suits do not help the disabled community.

"If anything, he has actually hurt the disabled," Walter said last year. "Somebody like that who goes out and files these lawsuits give the truly disabled a bad name."

Cohan disagreed and believes his lawsuits are helping the disabled community, and not just those in wheelchairs. His lawyers also said he doesn't receive any money from settlements.

"Businesses don't have any guidance on what it is that they're suppose to do," Leek said. 

The new law provides guidance by allowing businesses to join a voluntary program where they can have access to a group of certified experts. With the experts, they can conduct a self-evaluation of the property and then come up with a remediation plan to make their business more ADA compliant. That plan can then get registered with the state, which can help protect businesses from having to pay attorney's fees in ADA lawsuits.

© 2017 WTLV-TV


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