News 5 Investigates: Local businesses hit with controversial lawsuits over alleged ADA violations

Posted at 10:10 AM, Mar 23, 2017
and last updated 2018-08-09 12:12:14-04

A new wave of lawsuits has just been filed against businesses all over Colorado.

Every lawsuit is centered around alleged ADA violations, and while these lawsuits are perfectly legal, attorneys fighting them say the people filing these cases may be more interested in collecting cash and less interested in getting businesses into compliance.

Mellisa Umphenour and Santiago Abreu call themselves “disability advocates,” but business owners and their attorneys say these so-called advocates often find minor violations and then ask for thousands of dollars to settle out of court.

Tim Ashley needs a wheel chair to get around town. He’s well educated on the Americans with Disabilities Act and can name quite a few issues about transportation barriers in southern Colorado.

“When there’s not a curb cut and I can’t get off the sidewalk, that’s a problem,” Ashley said. “When there’s no place to park, that’s also a problem.”

When News 5 informed Ashley that a small group of people — some of whom don’t even have a disability — are suing businesses by the dozen for minor violations, he wasn’t too happy.

“I think it really tarnishes the image of people who have disabilities,” Ashley said.

Since 2015, 134 ADA-related lawsuits were filed in Colorado. 54 were filed since January 2017.

News 5 Investigates discovered all of these cases stem from two plaintiffs.

The first plaintiff is a partially paralyzed man by the name of Santiago Abreu. He lives in Florida, but we found he’s filed 70 cases here in Colorado against places like The Broadmoor and Cheyenne Mountain Resort.

In one claim against both hotels, Abreu alleges the men’s restroom “didn’t provide a coat hook within proper reach for a person with a disability.”

“A coat hook being an inch too high is so minor, I wouldn’t even bring that up,” Ashley said.

Abreu also sued The Broadmoor for toilet paper and soap dispensers being a few inches too high or low and went after Cheyenne Mountain Resort for failing to post a “van accessible” parking sign below one of the current designated handicapped spots.

“It’s a $10 sign,” attorney Courtenay Patterson said. “You can get them on Amazon and swap them out.”

Patterson is representing five businesses sued by Mellisa Umphenour who we learned is not disabled.

Like Abreu, Umphenour has filed dozens of lawsuits against Colorado businesses for not having “van accessible” parking signs or restrooms that are missing insulation on pipes.

“This isn’t about fixing problems or raising awareness,” Patterson said. Patterson believes these plaintiffs are all about making money.

When News 5 lead investigative reporter Eric Ross asked how much money these serial ADA suers are making, Patterson guessed they’re making $3,000 to $5,000 per lawsuit when they’re settling.

Carmela Aiello and her husband have owned “Original Pizza” since the early 1990’s and never had any problems until they got hit with a lawsuit in January 2017.

“Nobody approached us,” she said. “Nobody contacted us until we got served.”

According to the lawsuit, Umphenour and her son said they visited the pizza shop and it didn’t have a proper handicapped sign posted at the right height.

Umphenour also claimed their was no insulation on the restroom hot water sink pipes to protect people in wheelchairs from potential burns, but we discovered a problem: Umphenour says she went to the pizza shop on Sunday, November 20, 2016, but Carmela says the pizza shop has been closed on Sundays for years.

Carmela also said she believes Umphenour and her son never stepped foot in her restaurant and she is now fighting the lawsuit in court.

“The easy way out is to pay them the amount of money they want,” Carmela said.

News 5 Investigates also discovered lawsuits filed by Umphenour and Abreu are similar in nature from the allegations to the facts. Patterson calls these lawsuits “copy and paste” complaints.

“They are usually 15 or 16 pages long and the only thing that differs is one paragraph,” Patterson said.

Unlike Abreu, Umphenour holds a position of influence in Colorado. Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed her three years ago to serve on the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council, also known as the CDDC. Sen. Irene Aguilar, who also serves on the council, said she had no idea Umphenour was filing dozens of ADA lawsuits that benefit her and not the council.

Sen. Aguilar said she understands the importance of ADA accessibility because her daughter uses a wheelchair to get around. And while she can’t comment on Umphenour’s motive in filing so many lawsuits, she said she does not agree with her approach.

“I think there should be some notice and allotment for people to correct the violation,” she said. “I think that most people wouldn’t intentionally discriminate against people with disabilities and they probably don’t even realize what they did was discriminatory.”

Right now in Colorado, anyone can sue for ADA violations without having to give the business owner time to make corrections. Carmela and her attorney said there needs to be a law to change that.

“They are little technical violations that if somebody just said, ‘Hey, your sign is too high or your toilet paper dispenser is too far over,’ they can fix it for basically no cost at all,” Patterson said. “Instead, they (business owners) are being extorted for thousands of dollars.”

It’s unclear exactly how much money Umphenour and Abreu have made because the amount of money each business settles for is kept confidential. However, business owners say they’ve been asked to pay anywhere from $2,500 to $15,000 to settle out of court.

News 5 reached out to Abreu’s attorney in Florida for comment on this story, but never heard back. We were able to reach Umphenour through email. She declined to give her side of the story in an interview with us, but did say she would consider sending us a statement.

We have not received a statement from Umphenour.

To date, Abreu has filed 70 ADA-related lawsuits in Colorado. Umphenour has filed 64.

Terrell Frederick, a third man from Colorado Springs has filed 43 lawsuits since February 2017.