Disability lawsuits surge in Florida. Are they removing barriers or ‘legal extortion’?
Daniel Figueredo and Rosa Romero quit their day jobs and took a big financial risk: opening a Cuban sandwich shop in Little Havana. Family and friends thought they were nuts.
They gutted a shoe-box space in a Calle Ocho strip center, installing a counter with stools, a row of white tables, dark-wood cabinets, a Spanish-style floor and a stamped ceiling with hanging lamps. The city of Miami approved all the work.
Yet three years after opening Sanguich de Miami in 2018, the couple and their landlord were sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by Emilio Pinero, an amputee who lost both legs from the knees down, according to his lawsuit. The couple and their landlord settled the case to avoid a costly court fight, making some repairs and splitting the $11,000 in legal fees paid to Pinero’s lawyers.
“We had to make a few slight adjustments, but that was it,” Figueredo, who is also an architect, told the Miami Herald as salsa music played in the background at the restaurant. Down deep, however, he saw the lawsuit as “legal extortion.”
“I felt extremely violated,” he said.
Pinero was not a random plaintiff — he’s a serial filer of disability access lawsuits, also known as a “tester” under ADA rules. Over the past decade, federal court records show, he has sued about 380 businesses in South Florida over ADA violations. He’s not alone. More than 11,000 similar suits have been filed since 2010. And, according to a Herald review of federal court records in South Florida during that period, the top 10 testers, a list that includes Pinero, account for nearly two-thirds of those cases.
Federal law specifically allows testers like Pinero to visit businesses to see whether they comply with the law and to sue on behalf of themselves and others. The law in Florida generally prevents them from personally collecting damages in federal court — but their attorneys can pocket thousands in fees from settlements. That provision may help explain why ADA access suits have become far and away the most common federal civil cases in South Florida. They fill federal dockets in many other states as well, from New York to California.
The explosion of ADA cases has been fueled most recently by efforts to expand the reach of the ADA from physical barriers to digital ones — such as business websites that lack “screen-reader software” to vocalize information for the visually and hearing impaired. In late March, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an ADA case filed by a Florida woman, a tester who has sued hundreds of hotels and lodging operators over websites that fail to provide “accessibility information,” such as whether accommodations are wheelchair-friendly.
The discrimination case taken up by a conservative court has national implications. A ruling could not only draw new legal lines for testers and ADA lawsuits but potentially influence other civil rights laws as well.
Testers are ‘heroes,’ attorney says
Attorneys representing testers call their clients heroes and insist they are only interested in suing to gain access for all people with disabilities.
“ADA plaintiffs are the only reason anything is accessible,” said attorney Thomas Bacon, a trailblazer in ADA law who was based in Florida for decades but recently moved to New York. “Typically local governments don’t check for ADA compliance; they only enforce their own local codes. ... It has been my experience that everybody waits until they are sued before they make the changes to comply with the ADA.”
One South Florida man took on city hall over disability access. He lost in court but also won
When Congress approved the ADA legislation in 1990, it was considered a milestone in civil rights law. It prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in almost all areas of life. Over the past 30 years, the ADA law has been widely credited with reducing discrimination and making everyday life more accessible for tens of millions of people with disabilities.
But the act, which has been amended over the years, has also allowed individuals such as Pinero to file large numbers of ADA lawsuits against businesses without warning, often teaming up with lawyers who specialize in the cases. The use of such advocates has stood the test of time and legal challenges, mainly because of Supreme Court precedents protecting the civil rights of testers in lawsuits over racial profiling arising from the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
But ADA cases, often over seemingly arcane violations like the slope of an access ramp, also have generated considerable backlash. Some targeted businesses view testers and their lawyers as “drive-by” hustlers trying to cash in on a fast settlement. Federal judges across the state also have raised questions. Most recently, a prominent Miami federal judge dismissed more than two dozens cases against South Florida gas stations, finding that the tester and his attorney formed “an illicit joint enterprise” to generate legal fees that they unlawfully split.
Top tester in South Florida
Federal court records show that the top tester in South Florida is a Palm Beach County man named Howard Cohan, who court documents state suffers from a variety of physical ailments, including spinal stenosis.
He has filed more than 2,200 ADA cases, focusing mostly on the lack of handicap parking spaces, accessible bathrooms and other issues at chain restaurants, retailers and hotels, such as Taco Bell, Total Wine and Holiday Inn. Cohan also filed another 470 lawsuits in the Orlando and Tallahassee regions — along with about 250 suits in Chicago, where he claims to have visited chain restaurants, hotels and shopping malls at least once and plans to return to them. Actually going to a place with plans to return is a legal requirement as a tester in physical barrier lawsuits.
Palm Beach Gardens attorney Gregory Sconzo, who has represented Cohan in nearly half of his Florida cases, declined to talk about his prolific ADA client or to allow his client to speak to the Herald. But Sconzo said testers like Cohan provide a tremendous benefit to other people with disabilities. And the fees he collects, he said, are “reasonable” — not “tens of thousands of dollars” for each case.
“I do believe in the right of a disabled individual to file a claim under the ADA to ensure compliance. That right applies to a person filing just a single case or a ‘tester,’ ” Sconzo said, noting that his legal work has been instrumental in forcing hotels to install pool lifts for people with disabilities in Florida. “I do believe significant benefits have come from the suits attorneys like myself have filed.”
Sconzo also points out that businesses could avoid suits if they simply complied with the law in the first place.
Another top tester is Andres Gomez, of Coral Gables, who says he’s legally blind in more than 700 ADA lawsuits filed in South Florida, court records show. Gomez is also a tester in about 250 complaints brought in San Francisco and Los Angeles, many looking to expand ADA rules to digital commerce. They all claim that an array of businesses, from restaurants to real estate companies to wineries, feature websites incompatible with screen-reader software, preventing his access.
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Gomez’s principal ADA attorney, Alberto Leal, based in Lake Worth, did not return calls and emails seeking comment. Gomez also could not be reached for comment.
Gomez’s lawsuits filed in L.A. and San Francisco, where he claims to have traveled to visit family, have caught the eye of defense attorneys who represent California businesses. Unlike Florida, California gives testers a financial incentive to sue — allowing plaintiffs to collect $4,000 for each offense., including over website access.
“In these types of cases, there are rarely actual injuries,” said Martin Orlick, a San Francisco-based defense attorney in ADA cases, who contends website suits are “clogging the courts” in California. He also argued that a plaintiff rarely if ever visits a business after reviewing a website. “These are ‘indignity’ damages.”
In 2021, as both a plaintiff and a tester, Gomez brought a website case against Vintage Sotheby’s International Realty, a brokerage service selling luxury properties in Napa, the heart of California’s wine country. He visited its website twice but claimed it was inaccessible to screen-reader software. In a declaration, Gomez wrote: “I like upscale areas. I currently live in Coral Gables, considered the ‘Beverly Hills’ of Miami. I often dream of buying property in other places, and Napa is one of my dream destinations.”
He admitted it was highly unlikely he would actually buy a Napa home but still accused the agency of discrimination because he was unable to use its website to browse real estate.
Sotheby’s lawyer, Ara Sahelian, argued that the case should be dismissed because Gomez had no intention of using the brokerage services. Last year, a federal judge in San Francisco agreed, concluding that the ADA law applies to a website only if it “facilitates access to the goods and services of a place of public accommodation.” To simplify, if you’re not going to use the service, you lose the discrimination claim.
Last year, court records show, Sahelian obtained dismissals of 11 other ADA website cases brought by Gomez in California for the same reason — a lack of “standing,” or cause, to sue. He called Gomez’s cases “frivolous.”
The real world
Longtime ADA lawyers interviewed defend testers like Gomez, arguing that businesses would ignore the law until challenged in a lawsuit. Most testers, they insist, certainly aren’t in it for money.
“They don’t get damages, so they strictly do it for the right to get compliance,” Bacon told the Herald. “These are not nuisance lawsuits. These are real-life access issues that defendants often choose to settle because they’ve been caught violating the law.”
Most of the testers identified by the Herald in court records did not respond to phone calls, emails and their lawyers did not agree to requests to interview them — with a few exceptions.
Bacon has been at the forefront of major ADA cases challenging physical barriers at public establishments and inaccessible commercial websites lacking screen-reader software. He is now representing Deborah Laufer, a Tampa woman who formerly lived in the Fort Lauderdale area. She has sued hundreds of lodging facilities for failing to provide “accessibility information” on their websites. One of her cases is now bound for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Laufer moved with her family to South Florida from New York in the 1990s. A decade later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 39. Laufer says she has been struggling with the disease ever since.
In 2020, Laufer said she was planning a cross-country trip and looking up whether hotels and other lodgings had accessibility information on their websites. Laufer, who uses a wheelchair when she travels, said that as she searched websites she found no useful information or it was unreliable.
That September, Laufer sued the owner of one bed and breakfast establishment in Maine, the Coast Village Inn and Cottages, claiming it was violating ADA law for failing to provide accessibility information on its website. She lost in the federal district court because a judge found she didn’t have legal standing to sue the inn’s owner, Acheson Hotels LLC. But she won on that critical point before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals. In turn, that raised a national issue on whether Laufer, as a “tester,” has standing to bring such a lawsuit under ADA law.
“I saw an injustice and something wrong happening,” Laufer, 56, told the Herald.
“I was getting slapped in the face every time I tried to book a room or do something,” said Laufer, who has filed more than 600 ADA cases over website accessibility information in Florida and several other states. “If I’m in position to be able to do something, I’m going to do something. People who run marathons are not the only ones staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and going to movies.”
A ruling from the Supreme Court, now controlled by a conservative and generally pro-business majority, could resolve a number of conflicting appellate decisions around the country and have huge implications for the future of enforcing the ADA and, potentially, other civil rights laws:
It could define how the ADA might be enforced on websites, the scope of testers and whether, as current law allows, a person who encounters discrimination has the right to sue — even if they don’t intend to visit a place that is violating the law.
“If the Supreme Court rules that encountering discrimination is not harmful, decades of civil rights precedent would effectively be nullified,” Bacon said. “It would make the ADA and other anti-discrimination statutes unenforceable because in order to prove a case, a plaintiff would have to show how he or she was injured in some additional way because encountering discrimination would no longer suffice.”
Matthew Dietz, a veteran ADA attorney in South Florida and a professor at the disability law clinic at the Nova Southeastern University College of Law, agreed.
“It would be devastating if the Supreme Court finds that she [Laufer], as a tester, doesn’t have legal standing to sue under the ADA,” he said. “It would have vast implications for the enforcement of the ADA throughout the country.”
Sending a chill
The volume of ADA suits has sometimes drawn criticism from federal judges. In 2018, according to the Orlando Sentinel, Orlando judges complained about “vague” and “boilerplate” complaints filed by more than a dozen attorneys.
The following year, a Miami federal judge sent another shot across the bow of ADA law, characterizing the use of a tester in a series of cases as little more than a legal racket. U.S. District Judge Paul Huck dismissed 26 cases against South Florida gas stations for failing to provide closed captions for the hearing impaired on gas pumps showing TV programming, finding the cases were “frivolous” and the lawyer’s fees were “inflated.”
Huck sanctioned Miami attorney Scott Dinin and plaintiff Alexander Johnson, noting that Dinin had illegally split his attorney’s fees with Johnson and ordered them to reimburse the defendants. In a final order, the judge directed Dinin to pay $59,900 and his client $6,600 in penalties to nonprofits dedicated to the rights of people with disabilities. Both were also ordered to do 50 hours of community service.
Huck also stopped Dinin and his client from filing any more ADA access cases without the judge’s permission.
“Lawyers who champion these cases are granted reasonable attorney’s fees for advancing Congress’s laudable goal of protecting the disabled community,” Huck wrote in an August 2019 sanctions order. “This is not one of those cases.”
Huck accused Dinin and his client of forming an “illicit joint enterprise” to “dishonestly line their pockets with attorney’s fees from hapless defendants under the sanctimonious guise of serving the interests of the disabled community.”
Johnson, with 146 ADA lawsuits under his name, ranks among the top 25 disability filers in South Florida, according to a Herald review of lawsuits.
Court records show that since Huck hit Dinin with sanctions four years ago, the lawyer has not filed another ADA case in the Southern District of Florida or anywhere else in Florida. Dinin’s law license was suspended for a year and a half by the Florida Supreme Court in 2020. Dinin did not respond to email and voice mail requests seeking comment for this story.
Johnson, a tester who lives in Fort Lauderdale, told the Herald he felt like he was “scapegoated” by the judge.
“I’m the most ethical of these ADA filers,” said Johnson. “I was up against these powerful gas station owners and just trying to get them to follow the law. It was not about the money. ... I’ve been quiet since this case ended.”
Bacon, Dietz and other lawyers who have devoted their careers to representing individual ADA plaintiffs and testers said attorneys who exploit their clients unfortunately create the impression that the whole system is crooked.
Dietz, the Nova Southeastern University professor, said the optics are horrible.
“It’s sad,” he said, “because it makes life harder for attorneys who represent folks with disabilities to get what they need.”
‘An abuse of the justice system’
In Little Havana, Pinero’s lawsuit left a bad taste in the mouths of the owners of Sanguich de Miami. Daniel Figueredo and Rosa Romero said the strip mall was designed to be accessible — with handicap parking and a ramp. And so, the couple said, was their new restaurant, offering media noche sandwiches, batidos and other Cuban classics.
The suit — from someone they didn’t know and they weren’t sure had visited — focused on technicalities: the slope of a handicap parking space, the incline at the restaurant’s entrance, knee clearance under the tables, and the length of grab bars and height of mirrors in the bathrooms.
Pinero’s lawyers, Lauren Wassenberg and Glenn Goldstein, who have represented him in dozens of ADA cases, did not respond to email and voice mail messages for comment. Pinero also could not be reached for comment.
The couple said they thought about fighting, but soon agreed it would not be worth the aggravation and legal expenses.
“My husband asked me, ‘Why are we settling? We did nothing wrong.’ But it can cost more to fight than to settle, ten times as much,” said Romero, a former paralegal. “It’s an abuse of the justice system.”
Eric Castellanos, their landlord at the strip mall, shared the outrage, saying he had also been sued by Pinero and three other testers at his three Latin Cafe 2000 restaurants in the downtown Brickell, Le Jeune Road and Hialeah areas. Castellanos said he made small fixes and paid tens of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees as part of those settlements as well.
“I’m in full favor of making our places up to code and complying with the ADA law,” Castellanos said. “But this is different. They never go after the small mom and pops that don’t make money. They go after popular places because they have money. ... It’s usually the attorneys who run the show. They want to make a quick buck and move on to the next one.”