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Disabilities act a shakedown vehicle?

Plaintiff filed almost 160 lawsuits in 2016

On December 29, San Diegan Chris Langer filed a suit against the Cotter Company and Cotter Church Supplies of Los Angeles. In the suit, Langer complained that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which incorporates the ADA.

By my count, this was the 157th such suit he filed in federal courts in the Los Angeles and San Diego districts in 2016, although a lawyer friend says it was number 163.

In his suits, Langer says that he is a paraplegic who must use a wheelchair. He complains that an enterprise has not complied with the act for a number of different reasons: for example, he can't find specialized parking or has difficulty getting in the front door or the washroom.

Langer's law firm is Potter Handy, located just off I-15 near Mira Mesa Boulevard. The law firm has another name: the Center for Disability Access. On its website, the center boasts that the firm's lawyers are "devoted solely to upholding the rights of persons with disabilities." That means filing multiple ADA suits. The center was founded by Mark Potter, partner of the law firm.

"The [Americans with Disabilities Act] is a magnificent law," exults the center, but many others consider the ADA a shakedown vehicle. The suits demand that an enterprise fix the violations — but also want financial damages, often $4000. Potter Handy doesn't always prevail, of course. Some of its suits get thrown out, but it also settles some of them on good terms.

In 2013, a state law curbed some of he obvious abuses, but the suits continue to pile up around the state. One of the lawyers in the suit against Cotter, Ray Ballister, filed 586 Americans with Disabilities Act suits in the federal Los Angeles and San Diego district courts between 2004 and 2012. Ballister, and his fellow attorneys in the Cotter case, are in good standing with the California Bar Association. Theodore Pinnock, one of San Diego's most prolific ADA lawsuit filers, was disbarred in 2012.

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On December 29, San Diegan Chris Langer filed a suit against the Cotter Company and Cotter Church Supplies of Los Angeles. In the suit, Langer complained that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which incorporates the ADA.

By my count, this was the 157th such suit he filed in federal courts in the Los Angeles and San Diego districts in 2016, although a lawyer friend says it was number 163.

In his suits, Langer says that he is a paraplegic who must use a wheelchair. He complains that an enterprise has not complied with the act for a number of different reasons: for example, he can't find specialized parking or has difficulty getting in the front door or the washroom.

Langer's law firm is Potter Handy, located just off I-15 near Mira Mesa Boulevard. The law firm has another name: the Center for Disability Access. On its website, the center boasts that the firm's lawyers are "devoted solely to upholding the rights of persons with disabilities." That means filing multiple ADA suits. The center was founded by Mark Potter, partner of the law firm.

"The [Americans with Disabilities Act] is a magnificent law," exults the center, but many others consider the ADA a shakedown vehicle. The suits demand that an enterprise fix the violations — but also want financial damages, often $4000. Potter Handy doesn't always prevail, of course. Some of its suits get thrown out, but it also settles some of them on good terms.

In 2013, a state law curbed some of he obvious abuses, but the suits continue to pile up around the state. One of the lawyers in the suit against Cotter, Ray Ballister, filed 586 Americans with Disabilities Act suits in the federal Los Angeles and San Diego district courts between 2004 and 2012. Ballister, and his fellow attorneys in the Cotter case, are in good standing with the California Bar Association. Theodore Pinnock, one of San Diego's most prolific ADA lawsuit filers, was disbarred in 2012.

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Comments
74

This is exactly the sort of thing that has society holding lawyers in such low esteem. The plaintiff would not be filing these suits, not any of them, if it were not for that "law" firm. It is a shakedown vehicle, plain and simple, and is being flagrantly abused by Potter and his gang. I feel for those struggling businesses that end up on the receiving end of such lawsuits.

Jan. 2, 2017

Visduh: Plenty of people agree 100 percent with you. I am in your camp. However, in the past I have interviewed disabilities activists who think the suits are helpful, because the government doesn't have the time or money to pursue these abuses. However, even those who approve of the suits admit there are lawyers of dubious repute living off the ADA of 1990, which was passed with good intentions.

I think that after one plaintiff, or his/her law firm, file x number of suits, they should go on the vexatious litigant list -- at the least. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 2, 2017

Mike Murphy: Even the Pope, trained to believe in the beauty of the way and the goodness of the wayfarers, should be alert to scams. The Vatican's own bank is a case in point. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 2, 2017

Anderson Cooper did a story on this type of lawsuit abuse on 60 Minutes. The story called them "drive-by lawsuit" because the "victim" never gets out of the car. They just take a picture and file a lawsuit. So nobody was actually inconvenienced and in many cases the business did not know they were violating the ADA law.

Jan. 2, 2017

and now they are using google earth to see what places with pools don't have lifts installed.

Jan. 2, 2017

Murphyjunk: I would guess few homes with pools have lifts. I guess you can expect a bunch of suits on that topic. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 2, 2017

motels and hotels, not homes

Jan. 3, 2017

Murphyjunk: I would guess motels and hotels would be the first targets. But if homes entertain people in their pools, would they be next? Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 3, 2017

Google Earth to examine properties with pools to see if they have lifts? That is both genius and evil at the same time.

Jan. 8, 2017

PonziL: Yes, I have done several columns and blog items on this shakedown through the years. It's a case of unintended consequences. A bill is passed with the best of intentions, until rapacious lawyers turn it to their advantage. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 2, 2017

Seems the obvious solution is to revise the law, by implement binding arbitration where physical changes are the only allowed result and keep arbitration fees to no more than 5% of the physical change costs. This suggestion allows a remedy for those who are truly impacted while keeping those who exploit a well intentioned law, for financial gain, at bay.

Jan. 2, 2017

JustWondering: A solution like yours is one I have pondered. There should be a tight restriction on damages and plaintiff legal fees. Say, a maximum of $500 on damages. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 2, 2017

While this sort of disreputable activity does happen and I don't condone it, here is a thought....why not obey the law and be accessible? People/companies disregard the law until they are caught or someone brings it to their attention. If everyone complied with the rules then this scam would never occur. Signed, Disability Professional/Activist

P.S. I can hear the cries of "be realistic" even now. We create the reality.

Jan. 2, 2017

We bought a building in 1996 and made it ADA compliant. Last year we had a lawsuit filed against us because our tenant did not have a table specifically marked for the disabled. Is that realistic enough for you?

Jan. 2, 2017

we had our ada parking area ( the blue barrier stone) broken up and moved, had ada lawyer's process server show up the following day

Jan. 3, 2017

Murphyjunk: I suppose you couldn't prove that the guy who broke up the ADA area was sent by the lawyer who sued the next day. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 3, 2017

sbd: Pinnock got slapped by a judge for suing a business that had been closed for two years. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 3, 2017

long after he fleeced many small businesses.

his plan was to collect without ever having to go to court.

Jan. 4, 2017

Murphyjunk: Oh yes. These attorneys want a settlement. If they go to court, the defendant's lawyer possibly can show that the plaintiff may never have been to the place. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 4, 2017

JAB: Would it have been practical for every business, large and small, to comply with the act immediately after it passed in 1990? I don't think so. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 3, 2017

It's 2016. Poor argument.

Jan. 3, 2017

JAB: It's 2017. Poor argument. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 3, 2017

I expected better than that Mr Bauder. Can you name another law that has a 26 year grace period? It's clear that lawyers and scammers are using the law incorrectly and not adhering to the spirit. My point is that if businesses and people put a tiny sliver of resources into educating themselves about the law and making minor changes, they would never be prey to these crooks. Instead everyone rants about how the law is being used unfairly and how ridiculous it is. The law is reasonable. Unless you ignore it.

Jan. 3, 2017

keep in mind state and federal standards to comply are not standard, if they want to screw a business over they will find a way, its not about helping any one other that the lawyers helping themselves to money they don't deserve.

Jan. 3, 2017

Murphyjunk: Some of these ADA lawyers may be honestly concerned about establishments following the law, but have we seen many such attorneys? Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 4, 2017

JAB: I was just kidding when I said it's 2017. It is true that too many establishments don't follow the law until somebody sues them. That's wrong. But there are a lot of businesses living on the edge financially. I can see how the required changeover is delayed.

Another point; a business may make every change seemingly required by the law. Then one of these lawyers will find something else.

And a final point: are these lawyers really interested in the changes to accommodate those with disabilities? Or is their primary interest the damages and legal fees? Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 3, 2017

There have clearly been a lot of changes made over the years to comply with ADA - there are ramps, yellow bumps, special seating, special tables. You expect everyone in society to be able and willing to put unlimited time, money and resources into compliance with laws. That's not reasonable.

Jan. 6, 2017

Not unlimited. Compliance costs are much lower than 'conventional wisdom" believes. But you would need to educate folks to have them understand that. it's easier and more emotionally satisfying to rail against lawyers and "unfair' laws. And here's an idea, design and build things that are universal. It's called Universal Design.

Jan. 6, 2017

OK educate us. As of 1990 there were over 23,000 pages of federal laws. Why don't you educate us and explain how any person or business without a large legal staff could make sure they're compliant with 23,000+ pages of laws for a reasonable expense. I don't see how that's reasonable. Why don't you explain.

"They’ve (laws) been accumulating, of course, for more than 200 years. When federal laws were first codified in 1927, they fit into a single volume. By the 1980s, there were 50 volumes of more than 23,000 pages."

http://www.kowal.com/?q=How-Many-Federal-Laws-Are-There%3F

Jan. 6, 2017

That's only addressing ADA. As I said there are at least 23,000 pages of federal law. You implied that's it's reasonable to expect every person and business to comply with all laws given a long enough period of time. I don't see how that's possible with a reasonable amount of expense and effort for an ordinary individual or business.

Jan. 9, 2017

JAB: Will Universal Design lead to conformity that is depressing? Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 11, 2017

JAB: The businesses that have had to spend money on ADA do not tell me that the rehab is cheap. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 11, 2017

ImJustABill: People have to appreciate that business owners have a lot of things to attend to. They might not even know of the ADA laws. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 11, 2017

ImJustABill: We seem to have a consensus: ADA compliance is important. But lawyers exploiting ADA are greedy. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 11, 2017

Yes - I definitely agree with the concept of ADA and that businesses should have to do some things to accomodate the disabled. But I also think there needs to be common sense. For example, if a ramp is a few inches too narrow or slightly steeper than the law specifies than some leniency towards a business would be reasonable.

Jan. 11, 2017

seems these scammers are too smart ( chicken) to go after some of the small taco shops with gang affiliation.

Jan. 3, 2017

Murphyjunk: That's what some critics say. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 3, 2017

Murphyjunk: So he is up to 565? Wow. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 3, 2017

Yes, "if it bleeds it leads."

Yes, frivolous lawsuits have been filed because of the ADA. So if the Law is in such good order, it will weed out the bad lawyers in the courts, no? If not, the case(s) must be good ones, no?

Jan. 3, 2017

Flapper: But the lawyers try to avoid actually going to court. They want to settle, and often do. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 4, 2017

keep on mind many of the judges probably were classmates of the same lawyers

Jan. 5, 2017

Murphyjunk: The axiom is: "A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge." Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 5, 2017

No, the Judges are not.The serial litigants and their reps are the problem. Don Bauder, have you met any of the serial litigants?

Sept. 23, 2019

Flapper: If you look at the volume of these cases, filed by a small number of plaintiffs and their law firms that specialize in such litigation, it is difficult to see how they can be well researched and written. From what I have seen, these suits are pretty much rubber stamp jobs.

If I were a business owner hit by such a suit, I would go to court. And I would depose the plaintiff. I will bet he or she will know little or nothing about the establishment or the case. Maria Severson did that for a client; the plaintiff was pathetically unaware of the facts of the case and Maria won. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 3, 2017

you can afford to go to court? the big " selling point" for them ( and whatever lawyer you hire) is to settle out of court.

Jan. 4, 2017

Murphyjunk: Agreed. Pedal to the metal to settle. Best, Don Baudeer

Jan. 4, 2017

Good. But how about some cases illustrating legitimate grievances?

Jan. 3, 2017

good luck with that, its about the money, not change.

Jan. 4, 2017

Flapper: I am sure there are some. But the plaintiffs and their firms who file hundreds of such cases may cite legitimate grievances, but their objective is to settle, pocket the cash, and move on. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 4, 2017

Flapper: Yes, there are legitimate grievances. The question is whether these lawyers filing multiple ADA cases care whether a grievance is legitimate. Best,, Don Bauder

Jan. 7, 2017

Murphyjunk: Once the lawyers get their settlement cash, do they come back to see if the changes have been made? Possibly, so they can sue again if the conditions still exist. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 4, 2017

Debra Kuzma: I don't know if these lawyers pick on governments. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 4, 2017

thats why there all those yellow bumpy mats at street corners

Jan. 5, 2017

Murphyjunk: I am not familiar with yellow bumpy mats. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 5, 2017

Yellow bumpy curb ramp mats:

None

Jan. 6, 2017

JustWondering: Oh. Thanks. Don Bauder

Jan. 7, 2017

Mike Murphy: That's the consensus of this forum, anyway. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 4, 2017

Murphyjunk: Now I know what yellow bumps are. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 7, 2017

I didn't expect I'd get a real answer, but was the question unreasonable?

Jan. 4, 2017

Flapper: It would be wonderful if the law would sweep out the bad lawyers in court. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen enough. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 5, 2017

Either way, there's no justice. The law is for the oligarchy, to protect them from real citizens.

But what you could be doing (with the best of intentions) is creating negative vibes against people with disabilities. I hope to see another piece in the future that treats the real issues of access and denial of same. You'd be surprised at how much resentment there is out there aimed at people with disabilities.

Jan. 5, 2017

in most of the world, if a person does not like the way a business is set up, they just go elsewhere.

Jan. 6, 2017

Murphyjunk: Yes, but we are more enlightened in the U.S., or think we are. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 7, 2017

or the rest of the world is more realistic

Jan. 8, 2017

It is unfortunate that there is resentment directed towards the disabled. But if abuse of the ADA is partially responsible for that resentment (and I suspect it is) then I think the best thing to do is to point out the abuse of the law so that hopefully eventually legislators will change the laws.

Don't blame the messenger.

Jan. 6, 2017

ImJustABill: I do believe ADA is partly responsible for the resentment. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 7, 2017

Flapper: There is such resentment. Drivers go into a bit of a rage over empty parking places for the disabled only when the next available space is three blocks away. Or a disabled parking space taken by someone obviously not disabled…whether they have stickers on the car or not. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 7, 2017

IMO, lawsuits should not be used as a way to enforce laws. Period. The costs to society almost always exceed the benefits (except to lawyers).

Jan. 6, 2017

ImJustABill: But if enforcement is left to the government, little will be done. Private lawsuits can help. A good example is securities violations. State and federal securities regulators are understaffed (politicians make sure of that.) So civil legislation is necessary. There too, though, the abuses have been rampant. Then Congress's reforms were overkill. Sigh. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 7, 2017

You definitely have a valid argument Don - the private lawsuits do some good. But my thought is that they do more harm than good. To me I think the lawyers filing these types of suits are the modern-day equivalent of the Old West bounty hunters. They're just going to go after the money and don't care if the principles of justice and fairness are upheld. Philosophically I think for criminal violations should be handled by the criminal justice system, code violations should be handled by the code enforcement system and so on. Civil disputes should be restricted to a single party trying to be made whole - no more, no less - as a result of damage suffered by another single party.

Again, that's my philosophy and my personal way of waying the pros and cons - but you definitely have a valid argument and I certainly can't say that any of your arguments are wrong.

Jan. 7, 2017

ImJustABill: There is no question that are multiple abuses in civil securities cases. San Diego was home for those abuses: Lerach operated here. After spending time in prison, he is no longer practicing law. Best, Don Bauder

Jan. 7, 2017

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