by David Tilbury and Leye Jeannette Chrzanowski
Dissatisfied with enforcement records of the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, two enforcement groups are racking up successes inside and outside of the courtroom.
The Florida-based Association for DisAbled American has an impressive track record for forcing more Florida businesses to comply with the ADA, Florida Statutes 553 and 316 and the South Florida Building Code. None of its185 lawsuits has gone to trial. Seeking compliance, the group seeks damages only when agreements are violated.
The Association says it tries to educate a business before filing suit. Working in conjunction with a the Florida Paraplegic Association, it sends disabled volunteers to visit Florida businesses. If the volunteers are shut out or if they face other barriers to using the business or its services, then the Association notifies the business owners and managers about the violations--and how to correct them. When businesses refuse, legal action is pursued.
The Association filed its first class action civil lawsuit against Publix supermarkets for the supermarket chain's lack of access, Braille signage and lowered counters, and telephones without TTYs or hearing aid compatibility. Legal representation for lawsuits is provided by six different law firms on a contingency basis.
When defendants don't follow the terms of settlement agreements--and about a fifth of them don't--further action is taken, says Association consultant Michael Brennan. A movie theater was forced to pay $10,000 in punitive damages., who calls compliance "a win-win situation."
"The businesses avoid legal penalties, and gain tax credits for each year they perform ADA compliance renovations. They also enjoy an increase in their client base as a result of making their facilities more accessible."
In Las Vegas, Ronald Ray Smith has filed over 63 ADA and Fair Housing complaints. Smith who began a lone crusade in 1992 to enforce civil rights laws, recently joined forces with the Disabled Rights Action Committee.
Since 1992, Smith has zapped one casino after another, including the Silver Nugget and Lady Luck, for operating inaccessible fixed-route shuttle buses.
In 1996, Smith joined forces with those of DRAC, a Utah-based non-profit with some 2,000 members. Smith and DRAC's most recent ADA suit is against the Hard Rock Hotel, Inc. (no longer affiliated with the Hard Rock Cafe chain of restaurants). The suit, which is expected to be heard in court this fall, was filed in 1996, when the hotel only had a single inaccessible bus. The hotel has since purchased a second inaccessible bus.
Smith and DRAC have now begun to focus their attention on Fair Housing Act violations. This past May, the team secured an agreement with Frey Development Corporation to make 56 first-floor condominium units accessible, as required under the provisions of the Fair Housing Act. Then in June, Smith and DRAC joined Tony Bieszczat in another housing discrimination complaint. Bieszczat, who uses a power wheelchair, wants to buy a Mar-a-Lago condominium, currently under construction and being sold by Wheeler Development L.L.C. The ADA lawsuit, filed in late July, alleges that Bieszczat cannot buy the condominium because the multi-family buildings lack accessible first-floor units.
DRAC employs two attorneys on a contingency basis, and hopes to expand its efforts nationally.
Unlike the Association for Disabled Americans, DRAC's disability rights enforcement program does not include attempts to educate businesses before bringing suit. "We are not in the social work business," says Smith.
Both Brennan and Smith agree that rocking the boat is the best way to ensure that laws such as the ADA and Fair Housing Act are enforced. Brennan believes that too many disabled people are intimidated or afraid of possible retaliation or repercussions if they file lawsuits or make a formal complaint.
"Complacency accomplishes nothing. Sticking your neck out, taking a stand, risking retaliation, threats and repeated accusations is commonplace in our existence," notes Brennan. Smith, who refers to Las Vegas as "the capital of greed," says he has never experienced retaliation or threats. He says DRAC simply wants to show disabled people that business owners who violate the law can be beaten. "It doesn't take a lot of energy and it's easy to do," he adds.
©1998 The Disability News Service, Inc.
Visit the Disabled Rights Action Committee website at http://www2.intermind.net/~rrsmith/
Building officials fight access, but
California advocates "stop 'em cold"
California access advocates turned out in force at a July hearing of the California Building Standards Committee to testify against proposals by the building industry to reduce access. "The disability community stopped them cold," said access activist Walter Park. "We were able to convince the BSC to reject every single proposal."
Access regs in the California code ("Title 24") "go back over twenty years, and are better than ADA," said Park. .The proposals to cut access were supported by the California Building Officials, the Building Owners and Managers Association, the California Building Industry Association, the American Institute of Architects, and the University of California. (See, "California developers try to change state requirements for access," D.R. Nation, March/April, '98).
The industry coalition, said Park, "didn't really bother to present a case--their comments were vague and trivial. They tried to argue that we would get better compliance by reducing the code. I guess if there was no code at all, they'd never fail to comply!
"We didn't realize they had tails until we saw the guys in suits go out with their tails between their legs," he added.
The proposed reductions would have imposed a 20 percent cost cap on large renovation projects, and would have generalized and extended "unreasonable hardship" exceptions, as well as gutting requirements for elevators in public buildings--contrary to federal law. Though most of the cuts affected people with orthopedic conditions, the blind community turned out in force, said Park. Local coordinators spent weeks organizing accessible van transit, arranging lunches and personal attendants. Financial assistance came from the Disability Rights Access Fund, Park said.
"When the Commission announced its decision there were grins from ear to ear all around the room," said Park. "We won and we won big!
"But this battle never ends," he went on. "We are going to support improvements in the building code in the next code cycle. No doubt we'll have to withstand further attempts to reduce access."
Anyone who would like to keep informed of California accessibility issues can send email to:
ADAPT attorney Steve Gold strikes again
Doctors' offices must be accessible, says court