Squeeze Squeeze Makes Me Squeamish

Burger lovers love red meat, as do local TV and radio stations. To wit: they are making quite a meal out of the ADA lawsuit claiming Food Network and local darling The Squeeze Inn is inaccessible to people with disabilities.  It’s a fabulous, hands-in-the-air, lawyers-suck, can-you-believe-it sort of story: tiny business faces financial ruin because we’ve never enacted tort reform and the ADA is broken and these professional plaintiffs can just do whatever they want and what about the children!

If commenters are to be believed, the lawyer and plaintiff are just the sorts of people who give accessibility efforts a bad name.  This might harm a hard-working local businessman, but the more significant damage is to disability advocacy in California.

Growing up, my father worked on disability policy for the City of Los Angeles.  Himself a disabled veteran, he was keenly aware of the challenges facing people with disabilities – challenges that most able-bodied people wouldn’t notice.  Most of us don’t need to call a restuarant, theater, club, or pretty much anywhere in advance to find out if we can get through the door.  Most of us don’t worry about what happens if we enjoy a big meal and multiple iced tea refills and we need to visit a bathroom with a narrow door that won’t accomodate our wheelchairs.  Most of us have never had to turn down an invitation to join our friends somewhere because, as much as we would like to attend, we can’t physically do it.

Very, very generally speaking, the ADA requires business upgrading older, pre-ADA facilities to include accomodations that make the facility fully accessible to people with physical limitations.  Often, prior to such an underataking, there is no penalty for business with less than accessible buildings.  Here’s the grossly simplified wiki-explanation:

The ADA allows private plaintiffs to receive only injunctive relief (a court order requiring the public accommodation to remedy violations of the accessibility regulations) and attorneys’ fees, and does not provide monetary rewards to private plaintiffs who sue non-compliant businesses. Unless a state law, such as the California Unruh Civil Rights Act,[18] provides for monetary damages to private plaintiffs, persons with disabilities do not obtain direct financial benefits from suing businesses that violate the ADA.

Thus, “professional plaintiffs” are typically found in states that have enacted state laws that allow private individuals to win monetary awards from non-compliant businesses.[18] At least one of these plaintiffs in California has been barred by courts from filing lawsuits unless he receives prior court permission.[18] The attorneys’ fees provision of Title III does provide incentive for lawyers to specialize and engage in serial ADA litigation, but a disabled plaintiff does not obtain financial reward from attorneys’ fees unless they act as their own attorney, or as mentioned above, a disabled plaintiff resides in a state which provides for minimum compensation and court fees in lawsuits. Moreover, there may be a benefit to these “private attorneys general” who identify and compel the correction of illegal conditions: they may increase the number of public accommodations accessible to persons with disabilities. “Civil rights law depends heavily on private enforcement. Moreover, the inclusion of penalties and damages is the driving force that facilitates voluntary compliance with the ADA.” [19] Courts have noted: “As a result, most ADA suits are brought by a small number of private plaintiffs who view themselves as champions of the disabled. For the ADA to yield its promise of equal access for the disabled, it may indeed be necessary and desirable for committed individuals to bring serial litigation advancing the time when public accommodations will be compliant with the ADA.” [20]

Thousands of people have submitted requests to the Department of Justice for investigation of barriers in older buildings and design and construction errors in brand new facilities. Most of these are ignored, because even if the government wanted to investigate all of them, they lack the staff or budget to do so.[citation needed] In its 2004 Americans with Disabilities Act Report, the Department of Justice identified the “pervasive and chronic failure of businesses to comply with even the most rudimentary access requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.” [21]

Most business owners realized after a while that there was little chance that the DOJ would come after them, and thus put off making changes to remove barriers. In most cases of uncooperative businesses, individuals must hire an attorney and bring a civil suit.

Note that the above is listed under the “criticism” section of the wiki entry.  Also note that angry burger lovers should be more angry with California law than with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

So I suppose all I’d ask from Sacramentans is some patience and understanding of the underlying issues and not to vilify communities or advocates out of love of a local landmark.  Even if the players here are less-than-admirable, the law and its goals are admirable and vital to a small, usually ignored number of your fellow citizens.

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