Lawmakers debate ways to reign in perceived ADA abusers

Lawmakers debate ways to reign in perceived ADA abusers (Photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) Kraig McGee can't walk. Multiple sclerosis, or M.S., has confined him to a wheelchair.

He said he's glad there is a federal law that requires businesses to make accommodations for people like him.

“The ramp, a parking space, being able to get in a building are what I look for,” McGee said.

But McGee is concerned with what he sees as an abuse of the law. Hundreds of businesses around the country, including his family’s business, McGee’s Stamp and Trophy in American Fork, have been slapped with lawsuits over arguably small infractions.

As Get Gephardt reported Monday on 2News at 10, businesses often settle out of court, paying an undisclosed amount of money. McGee’s owner, as well as other business owners, claim they had no idea they weren't in compliance until they were smacked with a suit.

Utah Representative Norm Thurston said the so-called drive-by-lawsuits concern him, too.

“We've got people who are exploiting loopholes in the law for personal gain," he said.

Thurston said he is trying to come up with a fix, namely legislation in Utah that would reign in how and when a business can be sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What that legislation might look like remains a mystery. Thurston recognizes Utah is limited in its authority to put restrictions on the federal ADA.

“We don't have a lot of options," Thurston said. As a state, we don't regulate that many things that are related to this case."

Utah does oversee the licensing of lawyers in the state. He thinks there may be an opportunity, there, to make a change aimed at curbing drive-by-lawsuits.

He’s also watching what other states are doing to combat the issue.

For example, in Florida it has been proposed that a business can't be sued as long as they have a "remediation plan" to fix an issue.

Also, on the federal level, a U.S. representative from Texas wants to change the Americans with Disabilities Act to require a business be notified of a violation and given 60 days to fix it before the business can be sued.

But Aaron Kinikini, legal director at Utah's Disability Law Center, said it makes advocates for the disabled nervous when people talk about changing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He admits abuse can happen, but said all a business needs to do to win a lawsuit is to comply with the law. At this point, no business owner should be arguing ignorance as an excuse, he said.

“The ADA is actually a 25-plus-year-old law," Kinikini said. "If you're talking about a grace period, I think 25 years is a sufficient grace period."

Unlike, say, the IRS, that oversees the tax laws passed by congress, there is no agency that goes out and makes sure companies are obeying the ADA. When congress passed the law in 1990, lawmakers specifically put in language that says lawyers should fix disability access problems and lawyers deserve to get paid for their time and trouble, suing.

The ADA does not allow for plaintiffs in the lawsuits to make any money off of them if they prevail in court. However, all bets are off in settlements. Lawyers and plaintiffs can ask for anything they want in exchange for dropping a lawsuit.

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