A Maryland advocacy group for people with disabilities has sued the Burlington Coat Factory store in Waldorf, alleging management has failed to make the business accessible to the disabled.
The lawsuit is part of a campaign by ACCESS Maryland to draw attention to what it says is widespread noncompliance with the American with Disabilities Act on the ninth anniversary of the federal law requiring that public buildings and private businesses be accessible to disabled customers. The complaint naming the Waldorf store is one of several filed this week against Maryland firms.
Though the ADA has been law for years, ACCESS Maryland believes that it is often ignored by companies, said Philip Fornaci, executive director of Maryland Disability Law Center and a member of ACCESS Maryland.
"In Maryland, unfortunately, people seem to have the idea that they don't really have to comply with the ADA," Fornaci said.
At the Waldorf Burlington Coat Factory, the fitting rooms are too small for a person using a wheelchair, while the bathroom has no accessible stall or sink, according to the lawsuit.
Burlington Coat Factory representatives deny any failure to meet the law's requirements.
"We dispute that there's any violation in that store whatsoever," said Stacy Haigney, a company attorney. "The fitting rooms were specifically constructed to comply with the ADA."
The Waldorf store has two handicap-accessible bathrooms, according to Haigney, along with other bathrooms that are not fully accessible. The customer who brought a complaint to ACCESS Maryland simply may have used the wrong bathroom, Haigney suggested.
ACCESS Maryland has been targeting several businesses each week in its five-week ADA anniversary campaign. This week, it sued not only the Waldorf store but also a CVS drugstore, Discount Mart and a second Burlington Coat Factory location, all three in Prince George's County.
The suits fall under Title III of the ADA, which allows a court to order compliance with the law but does not provide for any monetary damages. Without the fear of financial loss, Fornaci said, businesses feel less pressure to make their stores ADA-compliant. That's why ACCESS Maryland has chosen its current strategy. Businesses "don't like being singled out, and that's a potent threat," Fornaci said. "So this is an incentive for them to clean up. We don't want to shut them down, we want to give them more business."
Companies shut out a segment of the market if they are not accessible to the disabled, Fornaci said. "This is in their own commercial interest, because these are customers being lost," he said.
But Discount Mart owner Steven Franco did not consider the lawsuit a favor.
"We are doing everything in our power to make [the store] disability accessible," Franco said. "We do not practice discrimination."
While the business owners being sued may feel unfairly targeted for potential ADA violations shared by hundreds of companies, Fornaci said that neglecting to follow ADA requirements burdens millions of Americans.
"It may seem nitpicky unless you're the one who needs to use" special accommodations, Fornaci said. "It can be a really horrible situation. It's human dignity for people to be able to use the bathroom or the fitting room."