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Tiny charity caught in blizzard of ADA lawsuits

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Posted: Friday, September 23, 2016 6:00 am

In the back of his mind, Jim Cook knew from personal experience that he needed to install a handicapped parking space at Help Services, his small east Mesa charity, to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“I should have realized we didn’t have a parking space. None of us thought about it,’’ Cook said. “It was just an oversight.’’

Cook said he would have appreciated a courteous letter, a simple heads-up to remind him the parking space was required at his tiny, non-profit social service agency. Instead, Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) filed an ADA lawsuit against his charity.

The landmark ADA law, passed in 1990 and signed by President George H.W. Bush, is not exactly something new, but it suddenly became controversial this year. AID has filed more than 1,300 serial lawsuits against businesses, predominantly in Mesa, accusing them of violating ADA requirements.

The foundation has said it filed the suits after the Attorney General’s Office failed in its duty to enforce the ADA, creating an air of complacency in which most Arizona businesses violate the law.

The Attorney General’s Office’s policy is to mediate complaints received about ADA violations, seeking voluntary compliance as an alternative to prosecution.

The law requires parking spaces, ramps and other accommodations that would make it possible for disabled people to enter buildings open to the public, including restaurants, motels, apartment complexes and municipal buildings.

The suits have cited lack of parking facilities, lack of van parking spaces, and either a lack of signage or signs that are not tall enough.

“Plaintiff brings this civil rights action against the Defendant for failing to design, construct, and/or operate facilities that are fully accessible to, and independently usable by, disabled individuals,’’ according to the suit against Help Services filed on May 10 by attorney Peter Strojnik.

The plaintiffs are identified as Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities and David Ritzenthaler of Scottsdale, whom the suit says is “legally disabled.’’

“Specifically, Defendant’s Public Accommodation has barriers of access to disabled individuals by virtue of inadequacy of handicapped parking spacing, insufficient designation or signage and or insufficient disbursement of such parking spaces, notwithstanding that such modifications are readily achievable,’’ the suit says.

Cook, 82, said his agency was an easy target. He regrets not getting a handicapped space installed sooner but said the foundation’s tactics make him angry.

Cook worked for much of his life as an administrator of medical facilities in Syracuse, New York. He was in charge of construction management at one point, building satellite medical facilities that needed to comply with ADA requirements.

Now, an ADA lawsuit has cost his volunteer agency, which loans medical equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers and hospital beds to senior citizens, about $1,500 in legal fees with no end in sight.

The legal fees are a burden on a small agency with an annual budget of $20,000 to $25,000, Cook said. Founded in 1973, the volunteer agency represents a longstanding tradition of neighbors helping neighbors.

“I would have rather spent $200 and accomplished it, rather than spend $1,500,’’ Cook said.

“You give people a chance. You don’t come down with a hammer and hit them in the head,’’ he said. “If they had been polite, I bet they would have had a high compliance rate.’’

He said AID also demanded a piece of medical equipment for use by one of its members. Help Services offered exercise equipment used by paraplegics, but there has not been a settlement.

“That’s when I got the idea that they were fattening their pockets,’’ Cook said.

It’s not as if Cook is opposed to the ADA, but he said there have always been more parking spaces than needed at Help Services, and there are no obstructions to entering the building.

In practice, a caregiver will pick up a piece of medical equipment, or one of the volunteers at the agency will deliver it.

Help Services works entirely with volunteer help and is limited to helping residents of Dreamland Villa and Velda Rose Estates, which have about 6,000 residents combined. Cook said residents are mainly from blue collar backgrounds and are used to being left alone.

The self-contained nature of the community, built between 1958 and 1972, may have led to some complacency, he said.

“It was just a natural thing that occurred,’’ Cook said, about the handicapped parking space oversight. “It wasn’t anyone having purposeful intent to avoid the ADA.’’

Cook has plans to reseal his small parking lot at his inconspicuous building near Higley Road and University Drive and to install an ADA-approved parking space.

Cook praised the Attorney General’s Office for intervening in an ADA case. A judge has approved the office as a limited defendant in one case. A motion to consolidate more than 1,200 cases is pending.

If the cases are consolidated, it is possible they might eventually be dismissed as a group in further legal action.

While the legal process grinds forward, Cook is planning on filing a complaint against AID with the Attorney General’s Office.

“I’m pissed that this entire thing occurred. It didn’t need to occur,’’ Cook said. “This whole thing could have been handled in a gentlemanly fashion.’’

Reach Jim Walsh at 480-898-5639 or at jwalsh@timespublications.com.

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