Today has been, overall, disappointing. I got an adverse (and ridiculous boilerplate) agency review decision regarding my eligibility for Vocational Rehabilitation Services. I also learned that eight nursing home residents died after power outages caused by Hurricane Irma. But, I want to write about the issue that may have the greatest and longest-lasting ramifications: HR 620.
It’s sponsor, Ted Poe (a Texas Republican), euphemistically titled the bill the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. It should truly be called the ADA Title III Nullification Act of Hopefully Never. Currently, the only way ADA noncompliance is rectified is if a person that has a disability pursues action against the discriminatory party. If, for example, a new store is built with zero means of access for someone in a wheelchair (i.e., the only means of entry is staircases), no one is going to make the store owner comply with the ADA except people with disabilities. They could try to speak to the owner and explain that he or she is out of compliance. Or the person with a disability could file a complaint with a local human rights commission or the US Department of Justice. No government agency is out inspecting and ensuring accessibility. Complete onus is on the person with a disability. Based on this noncompliance (note that businesses have been aware of the ADA for 27 years and have had more than two decades to learn the rules and comply) and the effects of discrimination, as well as potential out-of-pocket fees spent on court filing and attorney fees, people with disabilities can potentially recover limited damages under the ADA.
Businesses and their buddies, like Representative Poe, are upset that ADA compliance is mandatory and, potentially, costly. It is business that has petitioned for HR 620. The bill, if passed, will be detrimental to civil rights and people with disabilities. Why? If a person with a disability discovers an architectural barrier, he or she will no longer be able to file a lawsuit unless: (1) he or she provides specific notice to the owner of the noncompliant entity regarding the barrier; (2) the owner fails to, within 60 days, provide a description of the changes it will make to become compliant or fails to, within 120 days, make substantial progress on the barrier removal. This is absolutely ridiculous.
The ADA has existed for 27 years; businesses have had ample time to comply. Now, any incentive to do so proactively is gone. New businesses will likely wait until they receive a complaint to make their buildings and services accessible. And, people with disabilities may be less likely to complain. Having to manage attendant care, paratransit, and a regular job can be exhausting, and few will have time to regularly follow up with the business and ensure is making reasonable progress toward compliance. It is much easier to ask an attorney to handle the letter-writing and maintenance aspects of the proposed amendments. Yet, with or without attorney, HR 620 would require a person who has been blatantly discriminated against to wait half a year before they can enforce their rights.
Businesses frequently state that they are frustrated with “drive-by lawsuits,” in which attorneys will search Google maps, look for businesses with noncompliant parking lots, find a local person with a disability to name in the suit, and file. The business may offer to settle, not wanting to engage in costly litigation, and the litigant and lawyer may make off with $2,500 each for minimal work and, allegedly, minimal harm caused by the business’ noncompliance.
This argument is completely bogus. I live in Indiana. We have no problem with ADA drive-by lawsuits. California and Florida may have a problem, but remedies already exist. Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure prohibits attorneys from filing frivolous lawsuits or harassing the adversarial party. Attorneys are sanctioned if they violate Rule 11, and all law school students learn this in their 1L Civil Procedure class. DREDF also notes that attorneys and Bar Associations have ethical obligations that prohibit inappropriate behavior by attorneys. California sanctioned one attorney regarding his unethical disability litigation methods.
From an ethical perspective, I’m truly disturbed that Representative Poe apparently has no qualms about putting forth a bill specifically designed to diminish the rights of people with disabilities. And I’m even more upset that the bill has 51 cosponsors. Members of both parties have cosponsored it. Are disability rights still a bipartisan issue? Perhaps. However, I would be remiss if I failed to share that the bill was passed out of the Judiciary Committee along party lines. All 15 Republicans voted in favor of the bill, and all nine Democrats voted against it.
If you are even half as concerned as I am about HR 620, please contact your representative and ask him or her to oppose the bill. Share with them how it diminishes civil rights and encourages noncompliance. Share that, in addition to the arguments given above, the bill is simply immoral. Share that disability rights matter.