- Associated Press - Friday, March 3, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona Senate and state attorney general are taking action against “drive-by” lawsuits targeting companies for purported shortcomings in disability access efforts as they continue to spread all across the country.

Legislation passed Wednesday by Senate that would give businesses a notice period to fix state disability laws violations before being hit with lawsuits comes amid a nationwide struggle between lawyers, disability groups and small business owners.

Senate Bill 1198 by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, is meant to target what he calls “unscrupulous attorneys” who lawmakers say are exploiting businesses by finding violations with the Arizona Americans with Disability Act and filing lawsuits. The claims are often dropped after the businesses agree to pay a cash settlement.

The complaints against businesses typically result from plaintiffs’ visits to local parking lots where they look for infractions involving unsuitable parking lot spaces and proper signage, or at times the lack of van accessibility in the handicapped space.

“Most of the victims of these predatory lawyers are small business people who just recently bought a business who aren’t conversant in all of the intricacies of the ADA law,” Kavanagh said.

The issue led Attorney General Mark Brnovich to ask a state court to dismiss more than 1,000 accessibility lawsuits filed by a disability advocacy group called Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities on grounds the group did not have legal standing. “Arizona is not going to tolerate serial litigators who try to shake down small hardworking businesses by exploiting the disability community,” Brnovich said in a statement.

But Peter Strojnik, Advocate for Individuals with Disabilities’ lead attorney helping plaintiffs file their lawsuits, said legislators are attempting to infringe on rights federal law has granted to the disabled.

“We have an interesting dynamic in Arizona, which is the dynamic between the political class favoring the businesses and the civil rights class protecting the disabled,” Strojnik said Friday. “Obviously one has greater power than the other.”

Strojnik said he plans to file an appeal against the court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuits.

Besides Arizona, legislation shielding small businesses against disability lawsuits has been proposed in California, Florida, and Minnesota.

The Arizona measure would require someone alleging a claim under the state’s disability laws to send the business a written notice describing the issue, and to allow the owner at least 60 days to fix the issue if it costs less than $10,000. Problems costing $10,000 or more would give businesses at least 90 days to comply.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said the attorney general’s involvement is sufficient in handling the problem. He said passing the bill would excuse business owners from their responsibilities to comply with the state’s disability laws, which have been on the books for nearly three decades.

“Let’s not only give them 27 years, let’s give them an additional few months to not have to do anything,” Quezada said of the proposal’s call for a written notice. “But wait and see if someone is going to file a complaint and then go back and correct whatever accessibility issues they have at their small business.”

Kavanagh says the attorneys filing claims don’t make sure the compliance corrections are made. “They don’t care, they got their cash and they’re on the run,” he said.

Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, has also introduced legislation tackling the issue, though House Bill 2504 focuses on recurring plaintiffs and attorneys. Her measure would give courts the ability to fine those they decide have filed suits just to receive money. It also states damages will only apply to “reasonable out-of-pocket expenses, medical bills and pain and suffering.”

Wednesday’s 22-8 vote sends the measure to the House for consideration.

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