|By Josh Brodesky, The Arizona Daily Star,
TucsonMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Mar. 28, 2008 - Twelve Tucson businesses, including two hospitals and several well-known restaurants, have been sued in the last week, accused of not being fully accessible to people with disabilities.
The suits, filed by a small, Florida-based law firm, target St. Mary's and St. Joseph's hospitals as well as the Doubletree Hotel, El Charro Cafe, Foothills Mall and Coffee Xchange, among other businesses.
The same law firm has filed hundreds of similar suits in nine other states and Washington, D.C.
None of the businesses knew it had been sued until it was called by the Arizona Daily Star. The few owners who would comment said they weren't doing anything wrong and that their buildings were just built before the Americans With Disabilities Act standards were adopted in 1990.
The federal court actions focus mostly on issues involving parking, access and bathroom size. For example, the suit against Silver Saddle Steak House claims its bathrooms are too small for a person in a wheelchair to use.
One targeting the Bum Steer restaurant claims there aren't enough handicapped- accessible parking spaces. At the Doubletree Hotel, the suit claims accessible guest rooms lack benches in showers as well as guardrails in bathrooms.
"A lot of my clients have gotten frustrated" about not having full access at these businesses, said Gene Zweben, a partner in the firm Schwartz Zweben & Slingbaum, which filed the suits. "They felt it's time now to force (the business owners) to do what they are required to do by law."
The lawsuits stem from six plaintiffs, many of whom are polio survivors and use wheelchairs. The lawsuits do not call for compensation.
"These were places that we normally go to, and we couldn't have access," said Charles Minner, a polio survivor who uses a wheelchair. "We just talked about it amongst ourselves for years."
Minner's wife, Micki, who also has survived polio and now uses a cane for support, said the couple's disabilities make even the most routine errands an ordeal. She said it can be overwhelming to go out to eat only to find her husband's wheelchair can't fit in a bathroom stall or there is a lack of parking.
"The No. 1 thing that was a shock to me is how much planning it takes to do anything," she said, referring to life with a physical disability.
"To go to the movies, to go to the grocery store, you have to know the place and already scoped it out so you can do what needs to be done. You can't even take a quick minute trip to the convenience store."
The Minners brought suits against the Doubletree Hotel, St. Joseph's Hospital and St. Mary's Hospital.
The lawsuits against the 12 businesses caught all the businesses by surprise, and most owners declined to comment. Those who did said they believe the lawsuits are frivolous.
"Why is a lawyer from Florida being hired for something in Tucson?" said Ray Flores, an owner of El Charro Cafe. "It's not going to impact the lives of the handicapped."
Heiko Langrehr, who bought the Bum Steer in December, called the suit a "slap in the face."
"It's all about the money," he said. "It's not about if those people get a better quality of life. It's lawyers making money."
While Zweben is not charging his clients, he said that if the suits are successful, the defendants will have to pay his fees.
And because of the way the Americans With Disabilities Act is written, he said it's very difficult for the businesses to collect their legal fees if the suits aren't successful. Almost all the suits get settled, he said.
"I don't think it should matter whether we are from Florida or from Arizona," Zweben said.
"Some business owners just think that everything is about making money. It's about accessibility. It's about access. A 1-inch threshold for someone in a wheelchair is like a brick wall."
Many of the restaurant owners, such as Jane Alva, owner of Silver Saddle, said they thought they were grandfathered in under the Americans With Disabilities Act because their buildings were older than the act, which was enacted in 1990.
"This is a very old building, and there are a lot of things grandfathered in," Alva said, adding that she already was trying to fix the accessibility issues with the restaurant's restrooms.
The idea of being "grandfathered in" under the Americans With Disabilities Act is something of a misconception, said Ed Myers, executive director for the Arizona Center for Disability Law.
For those buildings built before 1990, repairs must be affordable to owners, he said. If not, he said, accommodations need to ensure that all people can be served.
The Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, but many buildings were built before that. Here's what the law says about bringing those older buildings into compliance:
Sec.36.304 Removal of barriers.
(a) General. A public accommodation shall remove architectural barriers in existing facilities, including communication barriers that are structural in nature, where such removal is readily achievable, i.e., easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.
Sec.36.305 Alternatives to barrier removal.
(a) General. Where a public accommodation can demonstrate that barrier removal is not readily achievable, the public accommodation shall not fail to make its goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations available through alternative methods, if those methods are readily achievable.
Meet the firm
Schwartz Zweben & Slingbaum
--Location: Hollywood, Fla.
--Year formed: 2002
--Number of attorneys: nine
--Specialties: Americans With Disabilities Act, personal injury, workers' compensation.
--Other states where it has filed ADA suits: Ala., Calif., Fla., Md., Miss., Okla., Pa., Va., Wash., plus Washington, D.C.
--Number of ADA suits filed: several hundred.
--Who's being sued: Find the list of the businesses and a general description of some of the alleged problems. Page A4
DID YOU KNOW
The largest known violator of the Americans With Disabilities Act in Pima County is the city of Tucson. In January 2005, a U.S. Department of Justice audit of 48 city buildings found 1,290 violations. Buildings where violations were found included several recreation centers, libraries, the Tucson Convention Center, City Hall and a brand-new therapeutic swimming facility for the disabled.
Who's being sued and Why
A group of Tucsonans has brought 10 suits against a dozen prominent area businesses, claiming they are not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Here are the businesses and a description of some of the alleged problems.
Bum Steer 1910 N. Stone Ave.
--Bathrooms don't have accessible signs.
--Rear entrance ramp lacks handrails on both sides.
--Toilet stalls don't have grab bars.
Carondelet Health Network St. Joseph's Hospital, 350 N. Wilmot Road
--Numerous issues with parking related to signs, spaces and access.
--Some bathrooms and stalls are too small for wheelchairs.
--Paper-towel dispensers, mirrors and elevator buttons are out of reach.
St. Mary's Hospital, 1601 W. St. Mary's Road
--Numerous issues with bathrooms, with many amenities out of reach.
--Curbs are too steep.
--Numerous doors are too heavy.
Chuy's Baja Broiler 3100 E. Speedway
--Parking spaces are not close to the restaurant and not big enough for vans.
--The bar is too high, with no lowered section.
--Bathrooms: No signage, doors are too heavy, grab bars are not proper lengths.
Coffee Xchange 2443 N. Campbell Ave.
--Restaurant seating is not accessible.
--Toilet seats are too low.
--Bathroom doors don't have signage.
El Charro Cafe 4699 E. Speedway
--Restaurant seating is not accessible, and bar is too low.
--Parking spaces and bathrooms do not have signs.
--Bathroom stalls are too small for wheelchairs.
Doubletree Hotel 445 S. Alvernon Way
--Not enough accessible parking spaces, and the ones that do exist have signage and distance issues.
--Accessible guest rooms lack benches in showers, hand-held shower extensions and grab bars.
--Not enough floor space near guest-room doors to fit a wheelchair.
Frontier Village strip mall 3900 block of East Pima Street
--Parking-space signs are too low.
--Curb ramp cuts into access aisle.
--No van-accessible parking spaces.
Famous Sam's 3933 E. Pima St.
Counter is too high, and no accessible seating at bar.
No clear paths of travel.
Signs and room layout in women's restroom are improper.
Foothills Mall 7401 N. La Cholla Blvd.
--Some parking spaces don't have signs, some signs are too low, and grates have been placed in asphalt.
--Ramps are too steep or lead to surfaces that are not level.
--Amenities such as paper-towel dispensers, water fountains and telephones are out of reach.
Silver Saddle Steak House 310 E. Benson Highway
--Double doors are too narrow for wheelchairs.
--No accessible signs for parking.
--Bathrooms and stalls are too narrow for wheelchairs.
Speedway Craycroft Plaza 5400 block of East Speedway.
--Improper signs at several accessible parking spaces.
--Curbs protrude into access aisles.
--Some business doorways are too narrow.
--Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at 807-7789 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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