WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Sued over doorknobs or a parking space? Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against businesses for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's a 23 year old law that's still sparking legal controversy. One business whose been sued over his bathrooms, doorknobs, and parking spaces feels the lawsuits are frivolous, but the other side said it's the only way to enforce a federal law that's been ignored far too long.
Handicapped signs, and ramps are supposed to pave the way for equal access to buildings.
"People are disabled, not intentionally," said Joe Houston from his wheelchair.
But, the intents of some disabled customers are under fire from businesses.
"All of a sudden I get these papers filed to me like I am a criminal," said business owner Pete Roubekas.
A disabled customer is suing the Farmer Girl Restaurant for discrimination. It's one of nearly two-thousand cases filed in the last 3 years against South Florida businesses.
"I had to move the toilet 2-3 inches. I had to move the sinks," Roubekas explained.
He estimates he spent $12,000 making it easier for a disabled person to access the bathroom, dining area, and parking lot.
"This is the area they say is not level. This is really picky things they find wrong with it," said Roubekas pointing out a disabled parking space.
Inside the restaurant, there are problems too.
"They make it an issue because it's two inches too high," said Roubekas at his salad bar.
He's added signs offering assistance. An expert he hired told him he's compliant, but Roubekas says there is still an issue with the salad bar because it's too tall.
"How much will this cost to fix?" we asked.
"This will be a mess. It will destroy the whole salad bar. It will be a few thousand dollars just because of two inches," Roubekas explained.
David Ramnarine is suing Roubekas. The West Palm Beach man became disabled in 1990 from spinal cancer. He uses a wheelchair, but he still gets around town. Ramnarine has sued 59 South Florida businesses since 2010.
He and his attorney declined an interview, but Ramnarine's attorney said the number of cases filed is small compared to the number of places where Ramnarine faces discrimination during his daily activities.
Farmer Girl questions motives
Businesses who fight these cases in court often question the motives of the so-called customer suing them.
"No question they are going for the money. That's all they go for," Roubekas explained.
He's being asked to sign a confidential settlement agreement, and make additional changes.
Disabled advocates and their lawyers say lawsuits are the only way to get businesses to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A law that's been on the books for 23 years.
"No one enforces the ADA except people like Joe Houston," said attorney Thomas Bacon.
Houston and his team of attorneys have sued 148 South Florida businesses in just the last three years.
His advocacy group has filed hundreds more cases earning Houston the title "serial Plaintiff."
"Do you go to businesses just to sue?" we asked.
"That's not my original intention," Houston explained.
Houston admits in lawsuits that he's a tester, looking for ADA violations.
"Being a tester. It's like a light goes on when you see something that's right," Houston explained.
He said he doesn't decide who gets sued.
"I tell the lawyers what I encountered and they take it from there," Houston explained.
Houston said he experiences barriers during his daily life. A life Houston never expected to live. He was in a car crash at the age of 18, and is now paralyzed from the chest down.
He showed us how hard it is to get into a bathroom stall that's not wide enough, how hard it is to turn a door handle or a faucet knob.
Bathrooms are a big problem for him, and sometimes are unusable.
"Because I couldn't use it. I have to go and find and duck out behind the store to relieve myself because I couldn't get in the bathroom," Houston explained. "I have no other choice. You gotta go. You gotta go."
Businesses have gotten some lawsuits to go away. The courts have thrown out cases for lack of standing, but a recent 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision involving a case where Houston was the plaintiff, may pave the way for even more lawsuits in southern states.
"It doesn't matter what their motive is. It matters that they are disabled. And that they went there and they encountered violations which discriminated against them," said Bacon.
Bacon estimates 90-percent of his cases lead to a confidential settlement agreement. The average settlement is around $10,000 with all the money going to the lawyers and experts.
"It's a tough job," Houston explained, "because I don't get paid.
Experts say businesses looking to improve their property can apply for grants to defer some of the costs.
We put together three maps detailing all the locations that have been sued.
a full screen map
View Businesses sued in Southern PBC for ADA violations in a full screen map
View Businesses sued in Northern PBC for ADA violations in a full screen map