Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wheelchair user sues businesses in Selma, Alabama, for ADA violations

From The Selma Enterprise:

Five Selma businesses have been sued by a wheelchair-bound man who says the businesses broke a federal law because they lack proper restrooms and parking spaces, plus other accommodations for the handicapped. The lawsuits were filed against Foster's Freeze, the Mostly 99 Cent and Discount Cigarettes store, Bitter Properties, Town and Country grocery store and McCall Village Investors Corp.

It's not known whether other Selma businesses have been sued. McCall Village Investors Corp. owns the shopping center at McCall and Dinuba avenues where Town and Country operated before it recently closed. Bitter Properties owns part of the shopping center at McCall and Rose avenues where the 99 Cent store is located.

Some of the Selma businesses have committed to spend thousands of dollars to settle the lawsuits out of court and make changes to satisfy the federal law, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Others are considering whether to fight the lawsuits.

One business owner calls the suits "legalized extortion."

The man filing the lawsuits, Fernando Rubio, is represented by the Moore Law Firm of San Jose. Rubio got polio when he was 9 months old and has been confined to a wheelchair for more than 30 years, according to the lawsuits.

The lawsuits don't say where Rubio lives, and the Moore Law Firm did not return two phones call seeking comment.

That firm is reportedly involved with similar lawsuits against businesses in other Valley towns, including Fresno, Clovis and Reedley. A Reedley newspaper reported in November that the Bobby Salazar's restaurant in Reedley closed after a lawsuit was filed against it for alleged violations of the disabilities act.

Settling the lawsuits out of court is common sense, said Jessie Wright of Torrance, owner of McCall Village Investors: "It's the same as speeding. When you get caught, you have to pay the ticket."

Wright and Ben Park -- owner of the Foster's Freeze -- say there's no point in fighting the lawsuits because there are no loopholes in the disabilities act. Congress passed the act in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against people with handicaps.

Wright and Park said getting into a legal battle will only cost them more money, and they'll lose in the end anyway.

Wright settled the lawsuit out of court for an undisclosed amount of money and Park said he's in the process doing the same thing.

Wright said the settlement agreement he signed prohibits him from saying how much he paid. However, he said, the amount is less than the $100,000-plus originally sought in the lawsuit.

Some of the alleged violations in the parking lot at Wright's shopping center are spelled out in exacting detail in the lawsuit. It states, for example, that each handicapped parking space isn't identified by "the correctly reflectorized sign permanently posted immediately adjacent to and visible from each stall or space, consisting of a profile of the International Symbol of Accessibility in white on a dark blue background."

The lawsuit also cites several alleged violations in Town and Country's restroom, including this one: "The top of the toilet seat is less than 17"-19" from floor surface measured to the top of a maximum 2"-high toilet seat."

Wright said he will spend about $25,000 on the parking lot and that Town and Country -- even though it's closed -- is responsible for improving the restroom. Town and Country was still open when the lawsuit was filed. However, Wright said, "to the best of my knowledge" the store didn't close because of the lawsuit.

Town and Country owner Phil Lowe blamed the bad economy for the store closing. He could not be reached to comment for this story.

Wright, who has owned the shopping center since February, said he didn't know the center's parking lot or Town and Country's restroom violated the disabilities act.

In fact, he had the parking lot resealed and restriped in the last year, but that work didn't satisfy the act, he said.

No other businesses in the shopping center at McCall and Dinuba were named in the lawsuit. "Everything else is in compliance," Wright said.

He refuses to get angry or emotional about the lawsuit or its cost even though the expense is not covered by the insurance he had when the suit was filed.

Park (Foster's Freeze) feels differently. "If I didn't say I was angry, I would be lying. But I have to deal with it instead of staying angry," he said.

Park bought the Foster's Freeze -- which he said was built in 1964 -- in 2005. He believed the building was exempt from the disabilities act, which was incorrect.

Park said the lawsuit originally wanted about $200,000, but he will pay "significantly less" by settling out of court. His insurance won't cover the cost.

Park estimated he will spend an additional $30,000 to make changes in the building because of the lawsuit. The changes include making the handicapped space in his parking lot bigger, repainting the space and installing three signs about violators and related issues.

He also plans to lower a portion of his indoor and outdoor counters and convert two small restrooms with narrow doorways into a larger, unisex restroom to accommodate people in wheelchairs.

Park said he will have two years to make the changes.

He added that none of his regular customers who are handicapped had complained about the building. "Anything we can do to accommodate them, we are already trying to do," Park said.

Meanwhile, Robert Bitter -- who owns a portion of the McCall-Rose shopping center -- is weighing whether to fight the lawsuit (he's the one who calls it "legalized extortion").

Bitter faces a number of alleged violations about the center's parking lot, including the absence of a warning sign that lists the penalty for parking in handicapped spaces. He said he made improvements to the lot shortly before the lawsuit was filed that he believed would satisfy all laws.

Bitter -- who was born in Selma and graduated from Selma High in 1956 -- has hired an attorney for advice.

Parmjt Singh at the 99 Cent store referred questions about the lawsuit to Bitter. The suit said violations in the store included aisles that aren't wide enough, but Bitter said Singh has corrected the problem.

Officials at Selma City Hall have tried to help business owners by having two free workshops on how to meet requirements of the disabilities act. One piece of advice: Business owners should hire a certified access specialist to write a plan showing what changes would be made to comply with the act.

Such a plan provides business owners with some protection. If they get sued, they might not be responsible for the other side's attorney fees for the first 90 days of the suit, said Rebecca Hellwig of Lars Andersen & Associates of Fresno. Some lawyers charge about $400 an hour so the 90-day exemption could result in a big savings, Hellwig said.