Mellisa Umphenour claimed to be an advocate for people with special needs and even served on the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Board.
While serving on that board, News 5 Investigates discovered she was filing dozens of ADA-related lawsuits on her own behalf against Colorado businesses, which Gov. John Hickenlooper says he knew nothing about.
Since December 2016, Umphenour sued 64 Colorado businesses for what attorneys call “minor” ADA violations, like not having a “van accessible” parking sign under a designated handicap space.
Rachael Stafford, director for the Rocky Mountain ADA Center, says she is disappointed to hear these types of lawsuits are circulating around our state.
“Unfortunately, I think it’s having a negative impact because I think there is a stigma being created that people may be out for the money,” Stafford said.
Carmela Aiello and her husband believe money is Umphenour’s motive. Umphenour sued Aiello’s pizza shop claiming it discriminated against her and her son because a handicap sign had not been posted at the proper height.
Aiello’s attorney Courtenay Patterson is now fighting the case.
“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.”
Business owners said a day or so after the lawsuits were filed, Umphenour and her attorney would call and promise to dismiss the case altogether if they agreed to fork over cash.
“They (Umphenour and her attorney) are working a common legal strategy where unfortunately it is more beneficial financially for a business to settle out of court,” Stafford said.
Stafford said she believes Umphenour uses this to her advantage, because anyone who sues for ADA violations is not entitled to money. Only attorney’s fees can be awarded. The goal of ADA lawsuits is to fix violations, so Stafford finds it odd that Umphenour would demand money to settle a case before ever finding out whether the alleged violation is corrected.
“I think it’s unfortunate that they are not really solving the problem,” Stafford said.
An hour after News 5 lead investigative reporter Eric Ross gave Umphenour a final opportunity to discuss her lawsuits and position with the Developmental Disabilities Council, Umphenour resigned, citing “personal family concerns.” Umphenour also said in her resignation letter that she was sorry for the abrupt nature of her resignation. It’s unclear who Gov. Hickenlooper will choose to fill her vacated seat.
Attorney Courtenay Patterson is representing 5 of the 64 businesses Umphenour sued. Three of Patterson’s cases have already been dropped. According to Patterson, Umphenour wants to drop the remaining two, but Patterson has refused. Patterson is now turning the tables on Umphenour and wants to be compensated for her attorney’s fees.
News 5 Investigates will stay on top of this developing story and will bring you updates as they become available. You can view our initial story into a series of controversial ADA lawsuits here.
A third person located in Colorado Springs recently filed 43 ADA-related lawsuits between February and March of this year. According to court records, all of the cases are active. However, Bruce Wright, an attorney representing one of the businesses that was sued has just filed a motion to have all of the cases consolidated into one lawsuit and then have that case dismissed. You can read our follow-up story here.