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Restaurant owner has new hope in battling ADA case that 'feels like extortion'

Posted: 8:42 PM, Oct 26, 2016
Updated: 2016-10-27 04:39:57Z
BAILEY, Colo. -- The time has come for a popular Colorado restaurant to close its doors. Its owner says he cannot afford to fight claims of discrimination, which were filed in court by a man from Florida who says the restaurant is not accessible to people with disabilities.
 
However, the Denver7 Investigates team learned the restaurant, Riverbend Market and Eatery, might not have to close permanently as the owner first feared. It's set to close this coming Sunday, but could reopen in months to come.
 
Michael Abbondanza, who first shared his story with Denver7 Investigates in August , secured an attorney who's willing to defend him in court for free.
 
Abbondanza spent his money to bring life back to the restaurant building more than a year ago. A battle over money is what's shutting it down.
 
"It feels like extortion," attorney Courtenay Patterson said of the $15,000 Abbondanza could have paid to settle the ADA case.
 
"It's such a fraud on the court system, it's such a disservice to people who truly are disabled, who are actually victims of the law -- people who really need to have justice," she said. "And that's the whole point of the ADA statutes that are out there and the protections."
 
The federal court system asked Patterson to defend Abbondanza pro bono because he proved he could not afford to hire an attorney on his own.
 
Initially, she said she almost declined the case because of her busy schedule, but thought differently after seeing Denver7's story and hearing the specifics of the tiny technical accusations waged against Abbondanza.
 
"The urinal, they said, is a few inches too high," Abbondanza told Denver7 over the summer.
 
"When I read it more closely and I actually looked through the [court] complaint, I had such a visceral reaction to it that I was like, 'I have to do this, I don't care how busy I am, I'm doing this.' Because if there was ever a reason to do justice, this was it," Patterson said.
 
She recently filed a motion to dismiss the case . She argues, essentially, that the man from Florida, Santiago Abreu, filed suit in federal court too soon -- that he failed to follow State of Colorado rules and procedures first.
 
She also said he failed to just have a conversation.
 
"All it took was a phone call or a letter or even just walking up to [Abbondanza] and saying, 'Hey, do you know you're out of compliance?' I realize that's not necessarily, according to the plaintiff, required. But it seems like a whole lot easier," Patterson said.
 
To that end, Abreu and his attorneys have turned down every request to speak with Denver7 Investigates on-camera.
 
One of the attorneys said in an email statement, in part, "The Americans with Disabilities Act has been in force for over twenty-five years, yet the number of restaurants and taverns that have been in violation of the ADA and continue to violate the law is astounding."
 
Patterson argues that litigation is just making matters worse.
 
"Small business owners in particular are going to be so gun-shy any time they see somebody come in with a wheelchair, or on crutches or with any sort of disability that's visible," she said. "They're going to see that and immediately be concerned that, 'Oh my gosh, this is another one of those people. It's another tester coming in to see if I'm in compliance.'"
 
So far, Abreu has filed two more ADA discrimination cases in Colorado since Denver7's first story, bringing the total number of cases to 67 statewide.
 
Congressional legislation that could curtail the lawsuit filings has so far stalled.

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Ryan Luby is an award-winning investigative reporter for Denver7 Investigates. Connect with Ryan on Facebook , on Twitter , or by email to Ryan@TheDenverChannel.com . If you have a story idea or a tip for our investigative team, email Denver7 Investigates or call our tip line at (303) 832-0285. You can remain anonymous.