“Drive-By” ADA Lawsuits Affecting Tri-Cities’ Companies May Lead To Change in Washington Laws | Information
RICHLAND, WA – Small businesses in Richland have been plagued by lawsuits under the U.S. Disability Act in recent months, causing them to either fail to pay the thousands of dollars in civil lawsuit and attorney fees, or to continue doing business altogether.
The 1574 House Bill, introduced by MP Brad Klippert along with other bipartisan lawmakers, hopes to address this issue.
These civil suits, filed by Spokane attorney Dereck Butz and plaintiff Jeremy Johnson, were served on at least 8 Richland companies in addition to 9 other court cases in east Washington. Butz and Johnson are in each of these lawsuits.
Viiki Butler, owner of Real’s Deals in Uptown Richland, is one of the companies this lawsuit is being served on.
“It’s not that we don’t want to comply with the ADA, of course we do. It’s just that we don’t have the resources or the time to do what they ask us to do.” says Real Deals owner Vikki Butler. When she was first served in late March, the lawsuit said she had 21 days to comply with the lawsuit.
“We are heartbroken.” said Alexis Scarborough when she heard of the lawsuit. She has been with Real Deals since it opened.
“Like I said, you are my best friends. When we thought we had to close, it’s not just like losing a piece of our heart. Our customers are our family. Anyone who comes in; it brightens our day. We wouldn’t be what we are without Real Deals, “continued Scarborough.
But this is not just any ADA lawsuit, it’s what experts call a “drive-by ADA lawsuit”.
“In these cases, a plaintiff is suing a facility but never intends to visit that facility or use its services.” says Chester Baldwin, an attorney and lobbyist who is an expert on ADA lawsuits. He campaigned for bills to be passed in California and Arizona to improve this problem.
“I’ve seen this in other states like California and Arizona where there are groups that have filed hundreds and thousands of these cases with the same plaintiff and attorney who may never have been to the company.” said Baldwin.
“Some research has been done to try to find the plaintiff, have a conversation and find out what the problems are, and no one seems to be able to locate this person or who they are.” continued Baldwin.
Additionally, Butler says she knows all of her customers: “I’ve never heard of or met a Jeremy Johnson. I’ve always tried to help all of my customers if they have a disability or a wheelchair.”
This makes companies wonder if there ever was a Jeremy Johnson in their business.
“There was a complaint about the bathroom in the business facility and that the business facility doesn’t even have a public toilet,” Baldwin said.
ADA compliance is very technical – full of things like the handicap sign at a certain height or the toilet paper a certain distance from the toilet. Real Deals says they want to be compliant but don’t even know what ADA requirements they violated.
Chester Baldwin said in his experience that lawsuits in multiple lawsuits usually speak the same vague language as a company violated ADA requirements, and then hopes one of them will stay with one of the companies they filed lawsuits with.
“Most of the time, they haven’t even used these facilities to know if they’re breaking the rules. They just say the same thing to everyone and hope that the allegations they throw out are enough to scare anyone.” and pays. “says Baldwin.
Rep. Klippert, along with bipartisan support, introduced HB 1574 in hopes of improving this problem.
“We love anyone with a disability. We want to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.” says Klippert.
HB 1574 gives companies 30 days to attempt to resolve their ADA violation without a solicitation or complaint being served. If they fail to do so after 30 days, the lawsuit can be served on them.
“Give us 30 days to paint over and redo our disability sign. Give us 30 days to fix the gap between the toilet paper and the toilet seat. Give us 30 days to repaint our ADA sign.” says Klippert.
“What we are doing in Washington State is that before someone can sue a business owner or ask for money, they have to tell them about the problem and give them thirty days to fix it.” added Baldwin.
If the company proves to the judge that it is working on redress and needs permits and the like from the city, the company can have 60 days.
“If ADA compliance requires a city permit, give us 60 days.” adds Klippert.
The bill also holds attorneys and plaintiffs accountable if the judge or investigation shows that the plaintiff and attorney did not bring forward a valid ADA violation.
“Because in a lot of these cases, lawyers and plaintiffs are creating these annoying lawsuits to get money. And that’s not okay.” says Klippert.
“We just got through COVID. And now this.” says butler.
“If the court finds that the attorney and plaintiff are suing an owner, and let’s say the plaintiff has never been in business, then the proprietor can file a lawsuit against the attorney and plaintiff for being guilty of harassment and admonish them for money. You can claim damages and legal fees, “says Klippert.
Stephanie Samberg of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce shared her support for the Washington Business Association and HB 1574 in a letter to the press. Saying an unfair ADA lawsuit can do more harm than you’d expect.
“They know that if they violate the ADA, companies are excluded from applying for COVID-19 grants and any assistance, so it really does play a big role in whether companies can survive.” said Schwanberg.
Baldwin helped pass laws like this in California and Arizona to address this problem. Now he’s trying to do the same for Washington.
In the meantime, Baldwin gives this advice to any successful business with such a lawsuit.
“I would ask these people not to pay these people, this is blackmail. And the more you pay them, the more they’re going to do that to other people, ”Baldwin said.
The numbers are down and sales are down and will we be able to afford to pay off this guy? I dont know. But are we going to find out? We’re going to find out and we’re going to do it because the alternative is to close our doors and we’ve put everything in. We can’t close our doors, “said Butler.
Now that Washington has reopened, Butler hopes this will bring a change.
“It was so hot in that heat wave that we didn’t have that many people shopping!” Butler added.
Washington’s next legislature is January 2022. In the meantime, Baldwin says, reaching out to your local officials is key to promoting the 1574 House Bill. An issue that started small in other states like CA and AZ grew to thousands of Complain. He doesn’t want this to happen to Washington, but he says it could happen if it isn’t stopped now.
Rather than letting this type of lawsuit hit another thousand companies and then making it a big deal, it would be a lot smarter of us as Washington State if we stand up and say you know what is disabled about us Community more than anything. We want these conditions to be corrected and so it is better for everyone to be able to identify the problem and be able to correct it, “Baldwin said.
Real Deals has remained open so far, but has not yet reached an agreement with the lawyer.
“It would be devastating if we had to close. It would be like losing a piece of me if we had to close.” said Scarborough.
To request the passage of HB 1574, you can contact Senator Andy Cheap Majority Leader by clicking here and House Speaker Laurie Jenkins by clicking here. To contact your local representative, visit the Washington State Legislature website.
You can also visit the Washington Business Properties Association here.