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Montana resort fights access
by Mary Johnson

Ptarmigan Village: Nightly Condo Rentals
Ptarmigan Village

Ptarmigan Village must provide access, says court

Feb. 7, 2002 -- A pretty resort in the Glacier National Park ski area of Whitefish, Montana, is the scene of some ugly business, if you ask Kim and Marco Barreda. The Barredas, who live in a condo in the Ptarmigan Village resort, have sued the resort community under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. The case appears headed for jury trial in April, all attempts to settle having been rebuffed by the resort, which insists it doesn't fall under the laws.

According to the Barredas' attorney, the resort has spent close to $50,000 fighting the suit rather than spend the few thousand dollars needed to provide the access the Barredas have a right to by law.

In fact, access would have cost nothing at all had the resort listened to Kim Barreda.

When the Barredas moved to their condo, paths throughout the "village" -- to the swimming pool and other common ares -- were packed dirt trails, fairly navigable in wheelchairs. The Barredas are an athletic couple; Kim Barreda was at one time a swimming champion. A letter from management in the summer of 1999 telling of plans to "pretty up" the area by putting wood chips on all the paths set off alarms for the Barredas. They spoke up immediately, telling the condo association that wood chips would make the paths inaccessible. Both use wheelchairs -- Marco from a military service-related injury, Kim from amputations.

"I wanted to stop it before it happened," said Kim Barreda. "I didn't think they'd ignore me." .But that was what happened. The wood chips were put over all the paths.

The more the Barredas pressed the issue, the more the management seemed to stonewall. Tempers flared and the issue seemed to turn personal. In December, the condo board convened a meeting to discuss the Barreda's access problem -- and held it on the second floor of a building with no elevator -- "deliberately and maliciously," says Barreda attorney Chad Wold.

When the Barredas insisted another meeting be held, in an accessible location, the board held it in the check-in area in front of the reservation desk -- in front of staff and lodge guests, says Barreda, in what she calls an effort to expose and intimidate the couple.

Having lost the wood chip issue, the Barredas asked that their condo fee be reduced, since they were no longer able to get to the pool area and would have to go to a healthclub for exercise. They were refused. The fees weren't based on "usage," board president Jim Dyck wrote the Barredas; manager Steve Hebard said the board was "concerned about setting a new precedent."

Perhaps the resort had thought they could simply dismiss the Barredas' concerns (as they had other wheelchair users' over the years) But Kim Barreda, who runs the cripworld.com website and a number of others, knows about disability rights. She was convinced the resort fell under both the Fair Housing Act and the ADA as a place of public accommodation (Ptarmigan Village is a "place of lodging," defined in the ADA as a place of public accommodation-- its website, www.ptarmiganvillage.com, offers a variety of condo rental packages -- and a sign hangs by the road, offering "nightly condo rentals.")

They're turning it into a freak show -- and I'm the freak.

Kim Barreda photo
Kim Barreda

Despite such evidence, the resort's owners continue to insist they are not bound by the law. And much like Clint Eastwood and his Mission Ranch resort, the owners of Ptarmigan Village seem determined to spend far in excess of what access would cost to fight the law, and perhaps make an example of the Barredas. They seem intent on shaping a case for a Montana jury that likely knows little to nothing about disability rights by painting the Barredas as complainers who simply are not trying hard enough physically, but demanding special concessions they do not deserve.

In refusing to reduce their condo fees, the board sent a letter to the Barredas "saying that it was my lack of use by choice -- I wasn't trying hard enough," said Kim Barreda.

Much like Toyota in the recent case of Toyota v. Williams, Ptarmigan Village, it seems, is requiring Kim Barreda to prove she is "truly disabled" and has a right to use the ADA.

Their latest move is to require written answers from Kim to a long list of questions, including "the number of inches above the knee of your amputation for your right and left leg"; a list of all the prostheses she has had.

"For each set of prosthetics since your initial set," reads the Discovery Request, "please describe the following: date acquired, name of prostheticist, cost of prosthetics and who paid for them." She is to "describe the component construction of each set of prosthetics." Additional questions demand to know if she is "ambulatory with your current set of prosthetics," her "frequency of each period of walking" and "duration of each period of walking." It requires her to "describe the type and location of walking" and "any aid used to assist with walking." Ptarmigan Village wants to know if her "pattern of walking has changed since obtaining your current set of prosthetics" and if so "please describe the approximate date of each change and describe the change."

Such material, which has no place in a discrimination suit, seems to be intended to prove that Kim Barreda is malingering -- but with a purpose beyond that: to serve as a way to demoralize the Barredas, to make to appear "like I've done something wrong."

"They're turning it into a freak show," says Kim Barreda. "And I'm the freak."

Her experience fighting for access has shown Barreda, she says, why more people don't push for their rights. People who have legitimate complaints are afraid to press their cases "because somebody will ask about their catheter."

Ptarmigan Village has refused to consider settling, said Wold; they now insist they would have worked to resolve the problems -- if no lawsuit had been filed. "If we did not have this lawsuit in front of us, we would be working, I believe, cooperatively with Kim to make accommodations and resolve problems," said Dyck in a deposition.

Ptarmigan Village is represented by the prestigious Montana law firm of Crowley, Haughey, Hanson, Toole & Dietrich with offices in a half dozen Montana towns. Its website at www.crowleylaw.com boasts that its attorneys have received a top rating from Martindale and Hubble; are listed "among The Best Lawyers in America by authors Naifeh & Smith" and are members of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

At the start of the suit, Wold said, his clients would have accepted "the repairs and an apology." But rather than paying the few thousand dollars it would cost to restore access, the resort is spending up to ten times the amount in attorney fees. "The fact that their insurance company is willing to spend that rather than remedy the situation is absolutely amazing," says Wold.

"A lot of people go through their lives not realizing what rights they have," says Wold, adding that awareness of disability rights law is minimal in Montana. This is Wold's first disability rights case as well; his practice focuses on personal injury lawsuits (Messages can be sent to him or the Barredas by logging onto www.woldlawfirm.com).

It would seem as though the Barredas have a clearly winnable case. But this is Montana, and the case will go to jury trial unless it is settled beforehand. Ptarmigan Village seems determined to battle all the way to trial, trying to wear down the plaintiffs and hoping to get a jury that knows little about disability rights, but who will understand that the Barredas aren't "trying hard enough."

Ragged Edge's requests for interviews of both Ptarmigan Village management and their attorney were refused.

Mary Johnson is Editor of Ragged Edge magazine.

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