EDITORIAL: Legal shakedowns and the Americans With Disabilities Act

The “lawsuit lottery” describes the arrangement in which plaintiffs and predatory attorneys hijack the tort system in hopes of securing a get-rich-quick payout. But what Kevin Zimmerman and his attorney Whitney Wilcher have going on is more like a lawsuit factory.

Review-Journal columnist Jane Ann Morrison last week detailed Mr. Zimmerman’s story. The 39-year-old wheelchair-bound Clark County man and his attorney, Mr. Wilcher, have filed 274 federal lawsuits since January against local businesses he claims are in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The scheme involves identifying some nitpicky violation — the soap dispenser is four inches too high, for instance — and then going to court to coerce a payout.

Ms. Morrison reports that 22 businesses have settled with Mr. Zimmerman. A small-business owner told Ms. Morrison that the requested ransom was $3,900. An attorney for a larger company told her that the payoff was about $7,500. Business write the checks because the cost of going to court would be much higher.

Paul Martin, who ran Nevadans for Equal Access back when the ADA became law in 1990, said the tactic undermines the “credibility of legitimate cases.” He added that, “Somebody is looking to make a quick buck off the back of someone else.” Indeed.

And let’s not give Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Wilcher too much credit. They’re simply copying the cut-and-paste tactics that others have used successfully in recent years to exploit the civil justice system. In a 2016 Forbes commentary, Ken Barnes of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse noted that “abusive lawsuits under the [ADA] have spread across the country like an infectious disease plaguing small and micro businesses.”

One California firm that filed more than 700 ADA lawsuits was accused of recruiting disabled plaintiffs to act as injured parties in return for a portion of the settlements. “This came to light as the plaintiffs say they are still owed payouts from the numerous settled lawsuits,” Mr. Barnes noted.

In many cases, the businesses aren’t even aware of a complaint before being dragged into court. The disabled “victims” don’t even have to show they suffered any injury. A “60 Minutes” report last year found some plaintiffs used Google Earth and other online tools to look for supposed violations in businesses they had never patronized.

The Americans With Disabilities Act has done much to make life easier for those with various afflictions. But it’s also filled with the type of technical and vague verbiage that invites frivolous litigation. There’s little appetite for clarifying the law and while some larger businesses have fought back against this type of legal extortion, that’s simply not practical for many smaller enterprises.

One potential solution is a bipartisan proposal from two U.S. House members that would require plaintiffs to give businesses the opportunity to correct problems before facing legal action. This would accomplish the stated goal of those who say they’re only trying to hold businesses accountable and preclude discrimination.

Ms. Morrison’s Thursday column on Kevin Zimmerman and his attorney carried the headline, “Campaigning for disabled or quick buck?” There shouldn’t be much dispute as to the answer.

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