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House passes changes to Americans With Disabilities Act over activists’ objections

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), seen at the Capitol on Jan. 24, is among those opposing the ADA Education and Reform Act. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The House on Thursday passed legislation that would amend the Americans With Disabilities Act over objections from disability rights advocates and Democratic leaders, who warned that the bill would remove incentives for businesses to comply with the law.

The ADA Education and Reform Act passed on a 225-to-192 vote, with 12 Democrats joining all but 19 Republicans to approve a bill that proponents say is aimed at curbing unscrupulous lawyers who seek profit by threatening businesses with litigation without actually seeking to improve access for the disabled.

But activists say the bill, if enacted, would essentially gut the ADA’s provisions dealing with public accommodations by removing any incentive that businesses have to comply with the law before a complaint is filed.

Activists for disabled fear House bill would gut Americans With Disabilities Act

“We know of no other law that outlaws discrimination but permits entities to discriminate with impunity until victims experience that discrimination and educate the entities perpetrating it about their obligations not to discriminate,” said a September letter from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities signed by more than 200 disability rights groups. “Such a regime is absurd, and would make people with disabilities second-class citizens.”

On the other side are business groups, such as the International Council of Shopping Centers and the National Federation of Independent Business, which say the bill would stem “drive-by lawsuits” — so named because the lawyers who threaten them often do not physically inspect the premises.

But the bill’s critics say it would not necessarily stem the phenomenon because lawyers could still demand monetary settlements that do not include fixing the problems they identify. The abuses, the critics say, are better handled through state laws and local legal disciplinary authorities.

“No federal civil rights statute imposes such onerous requirements on discrimination victims before they can have the opportunity to enforce their rights in court,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), speaking against the bill on the House floor Thursday.

Under the bill, those wishing to sue businesses in federal court over an ADA public-accommodations violation must first deliver a 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 60 days to take action.

The legislation garnered some bipartisan support, including from one of the most liberal members of the House.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a lead co-sponsor of the bill, said in an interview that she has “witnessed too many rip-off artists in California that are in it for just making a buck.”

“I want public places to be accessible to persons with disabilities,” she said. “I want them fixed, and I’m not interested in making a few attorneys rich, and I’m not interested in gotcha stuff. I just want them to be accessible.”

One notable Republican opposed the bill: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference and the mother of a son with Down syndrome.

“The ADA was enacted more than 25 years ago to protect the disability community, and as part of that community, I could not in good conscience vote for this bill,” she said in a statement.

The bill’s prospects in the Senate are uncertain. No similar bill has emerged from a Senate committee, and top Democrats — including Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) — are strongly opposed.

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