People without disabilities use the ADA to make money; Lawmakers want it to stop

Posted at 6:00 PM, Feb 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-08 17:53:45-04

A bill aimed at stopping so called “disability advocates” from making money off the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) just passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

In a 225-192 vote, most House Republicans and about a dozen Democrats approved H.R. 620.

Last year, News 5 Investigates showed you how a handful of people filed dozens of lawsuits against Colorado businesses for minor ADA violations such as missing coat hooks in restroom stalls.

Some of the people filing ADA lawsuits don’t even have a disability.

Mellisa Umphenour, Terrell Frederick, and Santiago Abreu combined filed nearly 200 lawsuits between 2015 and 2017—then demanded thousands of dollars to settle the cases without ever checking to see whether the alleged violation was fixed.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) says plaintiffs and their attorneys have found an opportunity to line their pockets.

“It’s shameful,” Poe said in an interview with News 5.

Instead of finding major violations like buildings that are not accessible to people in wheelchairs, News 5 found people suing businesses for posting accessible parking spot signs just a few inches too low. Dozens of lawsuits were also filed if business owners failed to put the words “van accessible” on signage outside. How about toilet paper dispensers being a few centimeters too high? There’s a lawsuit for that too.

“These are not ADA advocates,” Poe said. “These are advocates for making money off the ADA. The individuals are sometimes not disabled themselves.”

Terrell Frederick, a cyclist in Colorado Springs has filed 43 lawsuits between February 15, 2017 and March 1, 2017.

“These cases are designed to extract money from businesses,” attorney Bruce Wright told News 5 in an interview last year.

Panda Express hired Wright to represent them after Frederick sued the Chinese chain—alleging the doors took more than 5 pounds of force to open.

Frederick offered no explanation of how he measured this. Shortly after the lawsuit against Panda Express was filed, Frederick’s attorney sent a letter demanding the chain pay them $2,750 if they want the case dropped.

“If there’s a problem, he (Frederick) ought to notify the business owner of the problem and give them a chance to fix it,” Wright said.

Under H.R. 620, so called “ADA advocates” will not be allowed to file lawsuits without first giving business owners a minimum of 120 days to address and fix the alleged violation.

“They are little technical violations that if somebody just said your sign is too high or your toilet paper dispenser is too far over, they could fix it in very short time for no cost at all,” attorney Courtenay Patterson said. “Instead, they (business owners) are being extorted for thousands of dollars.”

Patterson is representing a family owned pizza shop after a woman named Mellisa Umphenour filed a lawsuit. In court documents, Umphenour alleges the restaurant’s “accessible” parking sign was not posted at the proper height.

“I don’t know if the ADA ever contemplated this kind of lawsuit,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado Springs) said during an interview with Chief Investigative Reporter Eric Ross.

In many of the lawsuits, the allegations laid out are the same—only the names of the businesses are changed.

Rep. Lamborn finds these “copy and paste” or “drive-by” lawsuits appalling.

“These drive-by lawsuits appear to me to be an abuse of the legal system,” he said. “If they don’t give someone notice or time to fix the problem, it sounds like they are just out for the money.”

Umphenour, who once served on the Colorado Development Disabilities Council, filed more than 60 lawsuits in Colorado. A Florida man named Santiago Abreu filed 70.

In one lawsuit against the Broadmoor Hotel, Abreu claims there wasn’t a coat hook in the men’s restroom. He also alleges the hotel failed to provide access to a bathing suit dryer in the pool area.

Many of the businesses sued end up settling and the amounts of those settlements are kept confidential.

These ADA lawsuits aren’t just happening in Colorado. In Arizona, an organization call Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) filed more than 1,700 lawsuits. At the request of the Attorney General—the cases were dismissed.

H.R. 620 moves on to the Senate for approval.