Lawmakers locked in a months-long battle over how to combat “unscrupulous attorneys” who exploit state-accessibility law finally have reached a compromise.(Photo: Tom Tingle/The Republic)
Lawmakers ensnared in a months-long battle over how to combat “unscrupulous attorneys” who exploit state-accessibility law finally have reached a compromise.
The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday voted to advance a “striker” bill that revives and combines key elements of two failed pieces of legislation in an effort to address the concerns of both the business and disability communities.
Strikers replace a bill’s original language with entirely new wording, giving legislators an opportunity to revive or introduce legislation late in the session. Like any other bill, a striker requires full House and Senate approval and the governor’s signature to become law.
Senate Bill 1406 pulls from Sen. John Kavanagh’s Senate Bill 1198 and Rep. Maria Syms’ House Bill 2504, introduced in response to a flood of lawsuits filed against Valley businesses last year. The suits alleged violations of the Arizonans with Disabilities Act, the state’s equivalent of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and racked up thousands in settlement payouts as small-business owners tried to avoid costly legal battles.
Kavanagh’s bill would’ve given businesses up to 90 days to correct compliance issues before a lawsuit could be filed, outraging disability-rights advocates who argued businesses have had more than two decades to familiarize themselves with accessibility rules.
Syms’ bill focused on “serial plaintiffs” and attorneys, and sought to empower the courts to fine those they determined filed lawsuits primarily to line their pockets.
SB 1406 would require written notice and time to correct compliance issues, as Kavanagh’s bill would, but it also would give businesses 30 days to comply, rather than 60 to 90.
It also would limit the types of complaints to which the correction period applies, focusing on the height, wording and color of parking-lot signs; the widths of van-accessible parking spaces; the color and condition of parking-lot striping; the lack of certain exterior signs; and warning surfaces on ramps.
Like Syms’ bill, SB 1406 would allow the courts to fine unethical lawyers and plaintiffs, and to “consider the totality of the abusive litigation-related practices of the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s attorney” in analyzing their intentions.
A portion of the fines levied would go to the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family to educate “persons or entities” about their obligations under the AzDA.
“This was a huge compromise for us,” said Sarah Kader, staff attorney for the Arizona Center for Disability Law, which helped negotiate SB 1406.
“People with disabilities don’t want to be pitted against the business community. They just want to access businesses and all of the services businesses provide.”
“If a sign is an inch too low, they’re not going to get sued for $5,000. But this still allows for relief under the law for someone with a disability if there’s a major violation.”
Larry Wanger, executive director of the Arizona Statewide Independent Living Council, said that while he struggles with some elements of SB 1406, he thinks “it will provide business folks the protection they need from the lawyers they dealt with before.”
“If a sign is an inch too low, they’re not going to get sued for $5,000,” he said. “But this still allows for relief under the law for someone with a disability if there’s a major violation.”
Phil Pangrazio, president and CEO of Ability360, said his organization also supports the compromise despite not being “in love” with it.
Mesa Chamber of Commerce President Sally Harrison, who for months advocated for SB 1198 on behalf of small businesses, said SB 1406 “gets us closer to providing businesses with the protection they need against unscrupulous attorneys and drive-by lawsuits.”
Eric Emmert, representing the East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance, agreed, calling chamber members “ground zero” for shakedowns.
Despite the compromise on the legislation, business- and disability-community representatives clashed over a last-minute amendment exempting websites from state accessibility requirements until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on whether the ADA applies online.
Business owners told lawmakers they feared unethical attorneys would move to their websites next, while disability-rights activists argued websites are “profoundly important” for people with visual disabilities and should be accessible.
“This is a work in progress,” Rep. Don Shooter, who led negotiations for SB 1406, said before the committee voted to advance the amendment. “The scumbags never sleep, so we have to continually adapt to what they do to us. My hope is that, going forward, we will continue to work together as friends against a common enemy.”