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Bill targets ‘drive-by’ ADA lawsuits; advocates say it will do harm

March 3, 2018 GMT

For proponents of a bill aiming to reform lawsuits associated with the Americans with Disabilities Act, House Resolution 620 is a win for the business community.

But opponents argue the bill is unnecessary and violates the rights of those with disabilities.

Co-sponsored by Congressman Doug LaMalfa, Republican from Richvale, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 takes aim at numerous and burdensome “drive-by” lawsuits levied against businesses for not complying with ADA specifications.

The bill passed in the House of Representatives on Feb. 15 with an overwhelming majority of Republican votes, while only 12 Democrats crossed the aisle.

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“The ADA plays an important role in improving accessibility for those with disabilities,” LaMalfa said in a press release. “Unfortunately, it’s often taken advantage of by dishonest attorneys who file ‘drive-by’ lawsuits against businesses to get a quick pay-day. This practice hurts small businesses and only benefits corrupt attorneys. When a business owner is forced to pay expensive legal fees for unintended, vague, or technical violations, it actually hinders their ability to make their establishment ADA compliant.”

Included in the press release are statistics, which he says show that from 2013-2017, lawsuits associated with the ADA in federal courts increased 182 percent – from 2,722 to 7,663.

According to govtrack.us, a website which summarizes and tracks legislation, the new legislation would require that any person claiming discrimination must first provide written notice, allowing 60 days for an owner to acknowledge receipt of the complaint, plus an additional 120 days before legal action can be initiated.

The website indicates that no other civil rights legislation currently contains such a provision.

Area Congressman John Garamendi, a Walnut Grove Democrat, was one of 173 Democrats to vote against the bill.

“I believe the ADA needs reform, but H.R. 620 wasn’t the way to do it,” Garamendi said in an email response issued through his office. “California has strict standards for addressing failures to comply with the ADA, and H.R. 620 does not meet them. The bill’s provisions are vague, badly written, and insufficient to ensure timely enforcement of accessibility standards.”

Ana Acton, executive director with FREED, a disability and aging resource center providing services to residents of Nevada, Sierra, Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties, said H.R. 620 will not effectively curtail frivolous lawsuits and will only serve to hurt those with disabilities.

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“We definitely have fierce opposition to this bill, as it would roll back our rights and access to the community,” Acton said. “There are about 500 organizations opposed to this because it weakens protections and creates additional obstacles.”

Acton, a wheelchair user, said the ADA was structured in a way that put the onus of enforcement on those with disabilities, with the primary tool for forcing compliance coming in the form of lawsuits.

Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst with Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkeley, said the vast majority of lawsuits are sincere efforts to make businesses accommodate those with disabilities and are not cash grabs.

Golden said that media reports from the business point of view allege a "vast torrent of frivolous litigation extorting uninformed business owners to pay a lot of money for them and their attorneys to go away.”

Golden acknowledged there have been a few attorneys who have misused ADA requirements for their personal monetary gain, but that actions from a few “bad apples” should not hurt those with actual claims.

The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 is waiting to be sent to the United States Senate, according to govtrack.us.