Several Colorado businesses are being sued for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act but at least one business owner questions whether the lawsuits are really about accessibility or billing legal fees.
"I think money's at the heart of this lawsuit," said Virginia Landsdale, owner of Indulgences Day Spa in Northwest Denver. “If I had been called by this person, or by her attorney, we would have made the changes willingly.”
Indulgences Day Spa is one of 16 local businesses served with nearly identical lawsuits -- all served without warning, by the same plaintiff and Florida-based attorneys. At issue is access for those with disabilities at the 126-year-old building that houses the spa.
Lansdale told 7NEWS the business spent nearly $8,000 correcting the violations after the problems were brought to her attention.
"We now have the ADA restroom. We had to redesign our office space and lose our offices so we could create routes and take doors off," Landsdale said.
The reception counter was also lowered, and a wheelchair ramp was built to the rear entrance. But the legal battle did not end with these improvements.
"Our lawyer was able to have a conversation with them that they would take $15,000 and drop the case -- we said ‘no’," Lansdale said.
Attorney Marc Schatten represents Lansdale and another company being sued. He calls this practice lawsuit abuse.
"These companies want to get into compliance. They want to make their properties accessible for handicapped individuals, but what they don't want is to have extortion," Schatten said.
Schatten said Florida-based attorneys Bradley Weitz and Scott R. Dinan have filed hundreds of similar suits in other states, and believes their goal is to leave defendants on the hook for thousands of dollars in attorney fees.
“What the lawyers are doing here is abusive in the sense that right after they file one of these lawsuits, instead of sending a demand letter first, they are demanding in some cases $15,000,” Schatten said.
7NEWS has learned that Weitz has previously been sanctioned by courts in New York and Florida. The following is an excerpt from a ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Robin Rosenbaum filed in June 2012:
With respect to Mr. Weitz, this is not Mr. Weitz’s first brush with sanctions, nor is it the first
time that Mr. Weitz has been found to have made misrepresentations to a court before which he has appeared. As discussed above, in 2004, in Brinker, Judge Garber concluded that Mr. Weitz had made misrepresentations to the Court and recommended the imposition of sanctions against Mr. Weitz under Section 1927 and the Court’s inherent powers, and Judge Graham adopted and ratified Judge Garber’s report and recommendation. And, as recently as 2011 and 2012, two different federal courts in New York have both concluded that Defendant misrepresented the number of hours The undersigned has never previously recommended th 29 e imposition of sanctions against an attorney pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927 or the Court’s inherent powers and has only once recommended a finding that an attorney’s actions were without basis in law and in fact as a predicate for the Court’s imposition of sanctions pursuant to the Court’s inherent powers.
Moreover, Mr. Weitz appears to have adopted a strategy of litigating up to and over the line and then retreating by settling the case immediately if it appears that he might run the risk of being sanctioned for his conduct. These are not the actions of someone who has “learned his lesson,” as he worked when he sought awards of attorney’s fees in two ADA cases.
Mr. Weitz pled to Judge Garber in Brinker. To the contrary, in the instant matter, Mr. Weitz continued to insist at the May 14, 2012, hearing that he had done absolutely nothing wrong in this case. That Mr. Weitz either does not recognize that his bad-faith tactics are not acceptable or continues to misrepresent that he engaged in such activities demands the imposition of sanctions so that future litigants will not be damaged by Mr. Weitz’s improper behavior. And this conduct is particularly disturbing in the context of ADA litigation, where Congress designed the statute to protect disabled persons while minimizing to the extent possible the financial impact on small businesses. ADA plaintiffs are absolutely entitled to bring righteous cases, and they perform a vital service for our community when they do so. Attorneys who enable them to bring such cases successfully should receive their reasonable attorney’s fees and costs for their representation, as Congress has directed, to ensure that legitimate ADA cases will continue to be brought. But attorneys acting in bad faith who attempt to use otherwise-legitimate cases to extort unearned monies from small businesses who take corrective actions and comply with their obligations under the ADA cannot be tolerated.
While the Court does not lightly impose sanctions,29 Mr. Weitz must be held responsible for the financial consequences that his actions inflict. It is simply not fair to require Defendants to bear the financial burden that Mr. Weitz has needlessly and improperly imposed. Accordingly, I respectfully recommend that Mr. Weitz be sanctioned and required to pay all reasonable attorney’s fees incurred by Defendants after November 30, 2010.
Weitz, who is listed as the primary attorney on the lawsuits, did not respond to a 7NEWS request for comment regarding the lawsuits filed in Colorado.
The plaintiff in all 16 cases is Kristin McIntosh. The Denver resident is a paraplegic and self-described accessibility activist. In a telephone conversation she told 7NEWS she's disgusted that violations still occur more than 20 years after the ADA was passed, and that lawsuits are the most effective way to ensure compliance with the law.
According to state law, plaintiffs in ADA lawsuits are entitled to $500 in damages. However, there is no maximum dollar figure regarding the plaintiff’s attorney fees, which are billed to the defendant.
Landsdale said she didn't know her building violated the ADA prior to receiving the lawsuit, and now she's left wondering just how high her legal bills will rise.
"It doesn't do me any good as a business to discriminate against anyone. I want business,” Landsdale said. "I just wish it could have been handled in a different way."