• 9 Investigates: Minor lawsuits putting big strain on Central Florida businesses

    By: Karla Ray

    Updated:

    ORLANDO, Fla. - Some Sanford business owners are awaiting a federal ruling that would determine whether they’ll have to pay settlements in the form of attorney fees after being sued for potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    They’re the latest Central Florida businesses to be sued by a Daytona Beach attorney.

    The alleged violations are often quick fixes, but they can cost businesses thousands in legal fees and settlement costs.

    Business owners said those costs could be passed on to customers.

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    9 Investigates' Karla Ray discovered that a new law was passed to prevent such lawsuits from being filed, but only two Florida businesses have sought protection.

    The alleged violations may range from major issues, such as having an inadequate amount of disabled parking, to what some consider minor violations, such as coat racks or sinks in bathrooms being hung at an improper height.

    Court records show the Colonial Room Restaurant in Sanford recently upgraded signage; changed hardware on its bathroom doors; altered the height of its sinks, towel dispensers, coat hooks and mirrors and added special seating to its dining room after being sued for alleged ADA violations.

    "So far, we’ve spent $10,000," owner Michelle Simoneaux said.

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    The restaurant along with Hollerbach's Willow Tree Café and Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken -- which are also in Sanford -- are among more than three dozen Central Florida businesses that have recently been hit with almost identical lawsuits filed by attorney Joe Quick.

    Quick told 9 Investigates about the daily struggles he said his disabled clients face.

    "People like me represent clients who are disabled, who are being discriminated against, and that’s what I do," Quick said. "I’m very proud and happy with what I do.  Because of what we do, we see progress."

    Quick represents the same four clients in each lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

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    Some critics and court records refer to the plaintiffs as "testers," who target businesses with what some consider minor violations.

    The businesses often settle by paying thousands in attorney fees. The law forbids plaintiffs from receiving money for "relief" regardless of a court’s decision.

    "It’s the worst kind of case to have as a defense lawyer, because you have to tell them they likely have a violation, and they're likely going to have to pay some money out in attorney’s fees,” said State Rep. Tom Leek, who has defended such cases as an attorney.

    Last legislative session, Leek introduced and passed legislation that allows business owners to hire ADA experts to inspect their businesses.

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    Businesses are able to apply for a grace period to fix violations, but so far, only two businesses in the state have done so.

    "Once you hire that expert and you get your building compliant, you don't need to worry about these lawsuits going forward," Leek said.

    Thousands of lawsuits alleging ADA violations have been filed statewide. Settlement amounts aren't made public.

    Without that protection, the Colonial Room had to pay for its alleged violations.

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    Simoneaux said her main priority is to quickly come into compliance.

    "They put their heart and soul into a business,” Simoneaux said. "It’s just not right."

    Click here to enroll a business in the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation's ADA registry.

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