The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is a 1990 federal civil rights law intended to protect the rights and access of those with disabilities in almost every facet of society, from workplaces to recreational spaces, schools and shopping centers. Part of this involves specific standards for accessible design of everything from gas stations to hotel swimming pools. Some requirements seem onerous, but those businesses not in compliance may find themselves facing an ADA lawsuit.
Although the ADA has unquestionably had a positive impact on the lives of many residents and visitors of Florida, The Miami Herald reports there has been a recent surge in frivolous ADA lawsuits against businesses across the state. These civil lawsuits aim not so much to better access for those with disabilities as to milk Florida small businesses and property owners for minor lapses in failure to comply. The newspaper reported some attorneys are actively recruiting plaintiffs to file these actions, sending demand letters pushing business owners to settle quickly or else face a lawsuit and an order to shut down – without giving business owners any warning or opportunity to address the issue.
In Fort Myers, the local newspaper looked at all the federal ADA complaints filed in Florida in the last five years and discovered approximately 50 percent of those 6,000 claims were filed by the same dozen plaintiffs – many of whom are represented by the same law firms. In one case, a single plaintiff filed more than 400 public accommodation lawsuits, though several businesses say they have no record of that plaintiff being anywhere near the site. Violations included things like toilet rolls too close to the handrail.
As attorneys representing small business owners in Lake Mary and Orlando, we recognize many of these filings for what they essentially are: A shakedown. In fact, many advocates for those with disabilities say these lawsuits hurt them as much as anyone else because now, an increasing number of companies are treating them with extreme wariness. Most of these barrier-to-access lawsuits have targeted small businesses, such as motels, restaurants and tiny retailers. But there is some good news: A new state law that just went into effect a few months ago is affording businesses some relief.
HB 727, no codified in F.S. 553.5141, allows business owners to digitally file plans on how and when they will remedy known ADA violations. The ADA Title III Registry is an electronic, publicly-searchable database that certifies plans to modify and conform a public space in Florida to meet ADA standards. “Public spaces” in this case include most Florida businesses, as they welcome the public onsite for their own economic benefit.
The measures gives firms the opportunity to work with a qualified expert who can help pinpoint the ADA compliance issues and then file a plan with the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation to make the necessary changes. These plan must include changes to take place within 10 years. This gives businesses the time to incorporate necessary alterations with any planned updates or renovations, rather than be forced to hastily cobble together a piecemeal project.
Still, any good Orlando business lawyer will inform you that this measure is not going to stop someone from filing ADA public accommodations lawsuits. However, it can give property owners and businesses an avenue to potentially limit or defeat the frivolous cases and often greatly lower their risk of high attorney fees and court costs. Consulting with a highly-qualified business lawyer is in your best interest so you can not only work toward ADA compliance, but also reduce your risk of liability.
Contact the Florida business attorneys at The Chidolue Law Firm, serving Orlando and Lake Mary, by calling (407) 995-6567 or email us.
New Florida law helps businesses protect against frivolous ADA lawsuits, Sept. 14, 2017, By John Catalano, The Miami Herald
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