The House is set to approve a bill Thursday that advocates for the disabled fear would weaken the Americans With Disabilities Act by removing incentives for business owners to comply with the 27-year-old law mandating equal access to public accommodations.
But proponents of the bill, which has the backing of House Republican leaders and a handful of Democrats, say it would stem a tide of “drive-by lawsuits” brought by predatory lawyers seeking to collect payouts from noncompliant business owners without actually improving access for those with disabilities.
The ADA Education and Reform Act would require those who sue businesses in federal court to first deliver a specific written notice to that business detailing the illegal barrier to access, and then give that business 60 days to come up with a plan to address the complaints and an additional 120 days to take action.
That, the bill’s supporters say, would keep small-business owners from being targeted for legal shakedowns. But the bill’s opponents say it would in effect gut the ADA by removing any incentives businesses have to comply with the law before a complaint is filed.
“Right now the way the ADA is structured, the reason why businesses are going to comply is that they might be sued,” said Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington. “Once you take that away, that’s it, there’s no consequence. If you’re a business, there’s no reason why you need to worry about making yourself accessible.”
More than 200 disability rights groups have signed a letter opposing the bill, and tensions over the bill have run high at times.
Activists interrupted a House Rules Committee meeting on Tuesday at which lawmakers were considering the bill for floor action. They chanted “Don’t take our rights away. Hands off the ADA!” Capitol Police arrested 10, a department spokeswoman said, after they refused an order to leave the premises; five were in wheelchairs.
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), the bill’s lead sponsor, said at the committee meeting that the bill was a common-sense measure meant to address a “cottage industry” in which serial litigants — who often haven’t actually visited the property — demand $3,000 to $7,000 to drop their claims without requiring any improvements to access for people with disabilities.
Poe said the bill would not prevent bona fide complainants from suing: “If there is no substantial progress within the time limit, then file the lawsuit. Go after them. Get you a good lawyer, and pay them well. I’m in favor of that.”
The bill has the backing of business groups, including the influential National Federation of Independent Business, and support crosses party lines to some extent. Eleven of the 108 co-sponsors of the bill are Democrats, and six of those are from California, which has been particularly fertile ground for serial ADA litigants.
“We don’t think the first-time business owners should hear about how they’re out of compliance is when they’re served with a lawsuit,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.). “They ought to be given a little bit of time to remedy it.”
“I think if we as the Democratic Party want to say we support small businesses,” he added, “we ought to find a way to help protect small business owners.”
Senior Democratic leaders in both congressional chambers have issued statements opposing the bill. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, this week called it a “huge step backwards for disability rights” and an “absolute nonstarter” in the Senate, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that the bill “sets a troubling precedent that would harm the rights of all who rely on civil rights laws.”
Two members of Congress who use wheelchairs on a daily basis, Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), have come out strongly against the bill.
Duckworth, a former Army National Guard pilot who lost her legs in 2004 while fighting in Iraq, said in an interview that the House bill sends the message to disabled Americans “that your civil rights don’t matter.”
“I’m not saying that drive-by lawsuits are not an issue, but they are a very small segment of the problem, and this is gutting the ADA and civil rights in order to address a very specific issue which we can still address,” Duckworth said. “There are ways to fix that problem without actually taking away the civil rights of everyone who has a disability.”