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May 12, 2006 | Read comments | Post a comment

The story they've all been waiting for

Do a Google News search on "Laura Lee Medley" and you get 2 hits -- but there are over 200 separate news outlets running those 2 stories. And that's just today. The number will multiply -- count on it. And we haven't even mentioned the blogosphere, which is having a field day with the story and will probably continue for some days to come.

Yes, Medley's the woman whose story of rising from her wheelchair and running from police after being arrested on a suing-for-injury scam is, even as you read this, settling into its permanent slot in the News Of the Weird Hall of Fame.

There are so many layers to this particular blip on the media radar screen that one blog entry's just not going to do justice to them all.

So let's just start with the lede and go on from there.

The lede to the much-republished AP short begins thus:

A paraplegic who repeatedly filed claims and lawsuits for noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. . .

There, in that first line, is the fodder that feeds theurban legend about disabled people. You know the one: Disabled people file access lawsuits not for any legitimate reasons but simply to make money.

California media outlets have been in the forefront of promoting this legend (See stories here and here.)

The Medley howler is about as good a piece of evidence as we're likely to run into that this spin on things has pretty much morphed into conventional wisdom. After all, even Laura Lee Medley figured it out. She figured out -- and it's not unlikely she did so from all the news stories about "serial suers" -- that she could make money suing over access.

Except the news stories about that particular urban legend are, of course, distorted, and often simply inaccurate.

And except Medley didn't really sue over access -- she really sued over injuries sustained by inaccessible curbs.

To find that out, though, you have to go back through the coverage, to find the news story that started it all.

That was from the Pasadena Star News:

Medley says in the Long Beach claim that on Sept. 3 she was forced to drive her wheelchair on the street because of an inaccessible sidewalk.

Due to an inadequately maintained street, the wheelchair toppled, the claim filed Sept. 19 said. Medley said she broke her right arm, costing her $5,200 in damages.

Belinda Mayes, deputy city attorney for Long Beach, said the claim was denied because the sidewalk is accessible in the area in question. (Read original story.)

Which is different.

Yes, in Medley's case, the entire thing seems to have been a scam. There were no injuries. There was no doctor. The hospital papers documenting her injury were fake. Her crime can be filed under "perpetrating a fraud"

But unfortunately this story won't stick in people's minds for that reason.

It will stick because it feeds into those two common beliefs most of the public holds:

  • disabled people "fake" disability in order to get benefits they don't deserve -- a "free ride" when they could be working, and

  • disabled people file access lawsuits not for any legitimate reasons but simply to make money from damages payments

And the reason the public holds those beliefs has to do with the way this story has been reported again and again.

This second point is particularly interesting when it's leveled against people who file suits in states in which there are no damages payments provided for access violations. And the federal Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't allow for damages. (In California, where Medley ran her scam, state law does allow for payment of monetary damages.)

But you almost never see that in any news story about people who file lawsuits over access under the Americans with Disabilities Act -- which, as you remember, is the fact that erroneously led the stories being circulated about Medley.

In fact, the vast majority of disabled people are scared to file lawsuits for legitimate reasons -- and press coverage is one of the reasons they're scared.

OK, let's go down another layer, in another direction: Had Medley truly been injured -- had the injuries been real -- would her case therefore have merit?

Continue down this path with me for a minute: Suppose if Medley didn't "need" a wheelchair, but was in one nonetheless. Suppose that

...she was forced to drive her wheelchair on the street because of an inaccessible sidewalk [and]

Due to an inadequately maintained street, the wheelchair toppled . . . [and] she broke her right arm, costing her $5,200 ...

We get here into the sticky sticky area of disability law, in which, unlike much other civil rights law, the burden is on the disabled person to prove they are really disabled and thus really truly have a right to use civil rights laws.

When we consider the numbers of people injured, even killed, because they must travel in the streets because cities have failed to install curb cuts, so they can't get up onto the curbs and are forced to travel in the street (see stories here and here and here) we can either condemn Medley for the grifter she apparently is, have a good laugh, and put the whole thing out of our minds -- or we can think about the deeper issue here, the one that's not getting any media play: what about all the people who really are disabled and use wheelchairs out of necessity, who have things like this happen to them?

Is it bad that they sue?

If you follow the California media coverage of access suits to any degree, you'll know that that's the prevailing story, virtually never countered by reporters finding disability rights groups making the point that the reason lawsuits get filed is because businesses and public agencies persist in illegally refusing to remove architectural barriers, despite state and federal law mandating that removal.

But this is not a discussion that the Laura Lee Medley anecdote is going to engender.

And you can bet your wheelchair cushion that no national disability group is going to bring it up, either.

On April 23, the Sunday edition of Columbia, SC's The State newspaper published a long story about Linda Van Deusen. "Woman files 31 lawsuits in 6 years," ran the headline.

A few sentences after the lede came the guts of the story:

[T]he Columbia woman, who uses a wheelchair, has filed 31 federal lawsuits in six years — turning a personal injury into a personal crusade for the rights of the disabled.

None of her lawsuits has gone to trial. Seventeen have been settled out of court. Fourteen are pending, including three lawsuits filed on the same day this month.

All the defendants who have settled agreed to make changes and pay Van Deusen’s attorney fees. In a few cases, they also paid small damages.

She says the cases have not made her rich.

Note that she was asked -- and reporter Adam Beam felt compelled to report fairly high up in the story -- whether filing the suits had "made her rich."

The conventional wisdom today about wheelchair users who file lawsuits for access is that they're lawsuit happy, in it only for the money, causing the business community untold hardship. You can find hundreds of news stories that follow this formula, mostly from California media outlets, many of whom label people like Van Deusen "serial suers." Van Deusen's story itself got picked up by over a dozen media outlets nationwide.

Such is the stigma and vitriol directed against wheelchair users who file suits that Van Deusen felt compelled to write an op-ed article defending herself after the article was published.

I always inform the manager on duty of what the problem is and how it could be fixed. Attempts are made to contact the owners. Letters are sent. Phone calls are made. Sometimes businesses make the changes after being educated. . . .

Only after she's done all this does she file suit, she wrote, and quickly goes on to point out that " Buildings are fixed, often for relatively little money."

"These suits are not moneymakers," she stressed, compelled to defend herself. "In South Carolina . . . there are no punitive damages." (Read Van Deusen's op-ed.)

Against the backdrop of the Medley story, whose play in the blogosphere has just started, it might be useful to reflect on Linda Van Deusen's story.

And to try to spend some time thinking about why people like Van Deusen are made to feel like the villain rather than the victim. In most of the news reporting about access lawsuits, particularly in California, the victim is the poor business owner who, after nearly 2 decades of failing to obey access laws, faces the lawsuit.

And then there is Laura Lee Medley's story. Which -- trust me -- is the one everyone will remember.

Posted by mjohnson on May 12, 2006 07:28 PM


I think that it's good that a reporter is finally pointing out that this isn't making someone rich, even if they are pointing it out for the wrong reasons.

Maybe we need to get MTV to do a Special Edition "Cribs" about the "Sue Happy Crips". Then we can educate the nation on what large mansions these people live in all their lives from lawsuit #1 on.

Posted by: Matt on May 15, 2006 08:51 AM

We've got a disabled attorney here in San Diego that makes his living filing ADA suits here in San Diego County. Frequently they are against businesses he's never been to or tried to enter. There's a little mountain community here that specializes in Apple pies and all their buildings are 60 old at least, some on steep hillsides, all have narrow doors throughout. They are for the most part very small businesses like mom and pop gift shops and apple pie bakeries that can't afford to gut their interiors to accomodate wheelchairs AND stay in business so they settle with this suited lizard.

Don't think that no one's gaming the system friend. It's happening, daily.

Posted by: Eric on May 16, 2006 09:59 AM

I always find these examples (like in the above comment) of the many exceptions that should be obviously understood by the disability community interesting. It is not harsh or overreacting to expect basic access-basic treatment..no matter WHAT your business. I'm sure these same Maw and Pop businesses find money for countless other things-if the market for apples demands higher prices for apples, they adjust. As they should for what law AND our society now demands....access. Yes, people take advantage, but many many many more just turn around and go home. It's not up to you or anyone else in our society to decide where I should be granted access based on whether it's worth the trouble, important enough, or worth the money. Apple pie shops to schools....there's no excuse it's nearly 16 years after ADA.

Posted by: Kara Sheridan on May 16, 2006 03:18 PM


In part you stated: "..... that can't afford to gut their interiors to accomodate wheelchairs AND stay in business so they settle....."

Gut their interiors? Is is really all that hard or expensive to put in wider doors with no steps outside? Just how much, you being there and all, do you suppose this would cost?

And just how much do you suppose that they ended up spending for a Lawyer for not doing these inexpensive "non gutting interior" things?

It is widening a doorway. Any body can do that fairly inexpensive and removal of obstacles into the door. That simple.

Not to mention, it's keeping the Federal Law to do just that. Otherwise these 'Federal Law breaking' mom and pop shops are continually getting away with breaking the Federal Law. Can you do that, break a Federal Law and then think you should have that right to do that for it was too expensive, you thought, to keep it?

Would you tell the judge that you didn't feel you should have to obey a Federal Law because, well, it was too expensive?

Curious questions do come into my mind though, have you violated Federal Laws and think it's just fine? Just asking....

Oh and do you think it's okay that anybody could violate a Federal Law without penalty?

Just asking...

Posted by: Denise on May 23, 2006 09:07 PM

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