11th Circuit Fields Case of Incapacity Rights Claimant Sanctioned in Serial Litigation – Courthouse Information Service
While his lawyer called him a crusader for the disabled, a federal judge found he was involved in a campaign to bring frivolous civil rights suits for profit.
The James Lawrence King Federal Justice Building, home of the Miami office of the 11th District Court of Appeals.
(CN) – The 11th district examined Thursday whether a civil court judge had exceeded his powers by fines and penalties for community service against a man known for filing more than 130 accessibility lawsuits.
Alexander Johnson was once hailed as a crusader for the rights of deaf people by his now suspended attorney. He and attorney Scott Dinin filed dozens of federal lawsuits for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that requires the government and certain companies to make their services available to people with disabilities.
The complaints mainly focused on the accessibility of websites and the lack of subtitles for the deaf. Dinin filed several hundred more ADA cases with other plaintiffs.
The seemingly altruistic litigation crusade stalled in 2019 when Justice Paul Huck sanctioned Johnson and Dinin in the southern Florida county. He imposed the penalties after discovering that Dinin had “grossly inflated and misrepresented his billable time” in two cases due to the lack of subtitles on videos posted at gas stations.
Huck investigated more than two dozen similar cases filed by Johnson and Dinin against gas stations in Florida alleging violations of the ADA and Florida Civil Rights Act. The judge concluded that the duo had “a selfish motive in bringing these cases, which did not benefit anyone but Johnson and Dinin.”
He hit Dinin with more than $ 50,000 in penalties. Johnson was fined $ 6,000 and given a penalty not normally seen in civil courts – community service, 150 hours of it. Johnson was also prevented from filing new ADA cases in federal court.
During the hearings on Thursday in the 11th Ward, Johnson’s attorneys told an appellate panel of three judges that Johnson was being falsely punished for his attorney’s actions.
“There was absolutely no evidence that … Johnson knew his attorney was committing sanctionable behavior,” said Thomas Sclafani, Johnson’s attorney.
Sclafani insisted that Dinin was responsible for bringing the unfortunate civil rights claims into the litigation at issue. Huck found these allegations were frivolous because the duo repeatedly failed to ensure that administrative remedies were exhausted before filing legal action.
The attorney argued the district judge wrongly assumed the role of federal prosecutor and prosecutor when investigating the string of gas station ADA cases, some of which had already been resolved. Hitting Johnson with nonprofit services – and trying to ban him from filing ADA claims across the country – was an abuse of the court’s authority, Sclafani alleged.
“The district court has taken on the roles of attorney, attorney, witness and judge, all in violation of Mr. Johnson’s constitutional right to due process,” said Johnson’s letter to the 11th District.
The pleading also objects to an alleged failure to announce before a first sanction hearing before the district court.
Dinin, who was suspended for misconduct in the ADA cases last year, does not question the sanctions. However, he asks for some clarification to the core of the petrol station cases: whether the lack of subtitles on the screens of the petrol pumps is actually an ADA violation.
Both Dinin and Johnson argued before the three-member appellate panel that Judge Huck was wrong in describing the lack of closed captioning on gas pumps as a minor inconvenience for the deaf.
US District Judges Beverly Martin and Robin Rosenbaum, appointed by Barack Obama, are introducing the appeal along with US District Judge Robert Luck, one of Donald Trump’s appointments. You’re working on the case in the Miami Division of the 11th Circuit.
Court-appointed amicus curiae attorney Jennifer Ruiz argued to uphold sanctions against Johnson. She said “the records reflect that Johnson was not a revealing client blindly run by his lawyer.” Rather, he is at times familiar with ADA law and “directed litigation strategy”, claims Ruiz.
“The court maintained its constitutional obligation to prevent Johnson from continuing to waste judicial resources when the court had already determined that it had no material jurisdiction,” Ruiz wrote in a letter.
“The court had its discretion to adapt the sanctions to its bad faith findings,” the letter continues.
According to Ruiz, the main reason the district court rejected the ADA claims – Johnson’s lack of reputation – remains valid. She told the panel Thursday that Johnson was not a plaintiff seeking redress, but a profiteer. Ruiz said he once visited several gas stations in a single day looking for ADA violations that could benefit him.
Johnson reportedly had an agreement with Dinin under which they would split the proceeds from their ADA litigation. According to Huck, Johnson made $ 84,000 over a three-year period for participating in the ADA trials.
Ruiz said community service was a reasonable punishment as Johnson was unable to pay a hefty fine.
Dinin remains ineligible to practice law in Florida due to an 18-month suspension imposed on him in July 2020.
The attorney caused a stir in the legal world when he won a landmark website accessibility decision against Winn-Dixie under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, in April 2021, the 11th District overturned the decision, ruling that websites are not “public accommodation” subject to ADA accessibility requirements.