San Diego County used-car dealers, particularly in Oceanside, were already hurting, thanks to the deployment of local military personnel to Iraq, when more bad news arrived in the form of lawsuits. The suits, filed by Roy S. Landers, an attorney with offices in Mission Valley, and his associate, LaToya S. Redd, allege that the car lots were in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which the first President Bush signed into law in 1992.
In January of this year, hundreds of local car dealers began to receive the suits in the mail. Though the plaintiffs varied, Landers and Redd were always the plaintiff's attorneys. Jim Quinn manages Liberty Motors, a dealership on South Coast Highway in Oceanside owned by his daughter Michele. He received his lawsuit in early February. Ismael Rivera, whom the suit describes as a "male who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair," is the listed plaintiff. "On or about January 7, 2004," the suit continues, "plaintiff patronized the premises of defendants to utilize goods and/or services offered by defendants. When plaintiff attempted to gain access to the goods and/or services offered by defendants he encountered access barriers because the premises failed to comply with federal ADA Access Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities."
The suit goes on to list 18 specific violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Examples: "Lack of designated van accessible parking space"; "Threshold does not meet the requirements..."; "Wheelchair access is not available to each type of functional activity..."; "Door kick plates do not comply...." The suit lists four violations having to do with handrails.
In addition to the listed accusations, the suit makes a general accusation. "Plaintiff believes and thereon allege [sic] that Defendants' facilities, as described herein, have other access violations not directly experienced by Plaintiff, which preclude or limit access by others with disabilities including but not limited to, Space Allowances, Reach Ranges, Protruding objects..." and many others.
"Based upon the above facts," the suit continues, "Plaintiff as [sic] been discriminated against and will continue to be discriminated against unless and until Defendants are enjoined and forced to cease and desist from continuing to discriminate against Plaintiff and others similarly situated."
Quinn contends that he never discriminated against Rivera for the simple reason that "He never came onto our lot. He says he came to our lot, but he was never there. And all the people on this street who have now been sued -- they have now hit every car lot in Oceanside -- none of us has ever seen a handicapped person on our lot. I have been on this street for six years. I have never had a wheelchair on my property."
Whether he actually visited Quinn's lot or not, Rivera and his attorneys Landers and Redd wanted more from Quinn than an end to his alleged discrimination. Their lawsuit concludes with demands for: "general damages..."; "special damages"; "damages...in the amount of $4000 for each and every offense"; "Injunctive relief pursuant to 42 United States Code 12188(a) and California Business and Professions Code section 17200"; "For an award of attorney's fees..."; "For treble damages..."; "For punitive damages according to proof"; "For costs of suit incurred herein"; and "For such other and further relief as the court deems proper."
When he received the suit and read it through, Quinn contacted his lawyer, who told him, "Hey, if you want to go to court, it's going to cost you $20,000, and you may or may not win. It's not the right thing to do, but settle with the guy."
That's exactly what Quinn did. "We paid $7000, after spending a couple thousand dollars talking to the attorneys and just going wild in their offices. And then, following their advice to 'Pay it and go on with your life,' my landlord and I each gave him $3500."
He wasn't the only dealer in town to settle. "Everybody is going to their lawyers," he says, and their lawyers are telling them the same thing his told him: it costs less to settle than to fight. "We have heard of settlements as low as $2000 and as high as $12,000."
Quinn went to the federal courthouse downtown to find out just how many of these suits had been filed. "It's over 250," he says. At $2000 to $12,000 per settlement, that's between $500,000 to $3,000,000 that Landers and Redd have garnered in settlements.
"They have collected a couple of million dollars in the past year," says Matt Collins, owner of Collins Motors, a used-car dealership on El Cajon Boulevard between Interstates 805 and 15. None of that money came from Collins. Though he, too, received a lawsuit and a settlement demand, he is determined to fight it in court. "In my case," he says, "they sent one guy in here, and he looked at a car but didn't get near the office or anything. Then he rolled off down the street. But it was a different guy in a wheelchair who is actually the plaintiff on the suit than the guy that came in. In our case, the plaintiff is Gaynor Carlock, but that isn't the guy who came in."
Asked how he knows it wasn't Carlock who visited his lot, Collins answers, "Because when I went down to the federal court building, Carlock shows up, and he is a pretty sizable individual, and the guy that was here was very thin. He had a very small build. So it is very obvious, you know. That is not the same guy."
In a move that has cost him more than most of the other dealers have paid to settle, Collins has gone to court to contest the suit. "It's the principle of the thing," he explains.
His argument: "First of all, he wasn't injured. He wasn't hurt. He had no intentions of buying a vehicle. It is strictly a matter of them thinking they should get money. And second, you are not supposed to use the court system for profit. I have an article about some people in Los Angeles that got nailed for doing that. They were suing automotive-repair shops. Three of them got disbarred and sued by the state."