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House bill would make ADA business accessibility lawsuits harder

Today, it's shocking when people with disabilities are prevented from shopping at stores or working with businesses due to accessibility problems. It does still happen, but it is less common now thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Title III of that Act prohibits places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, stores, hotels, schools and healthcare facilities, from discriminating against people with disabilities. That includes failing to meet certain accessibility obligations like providing wheelchair ramps, for example.

A bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would make it harder for people to sue businesses for failing to meet such obligations. The ADA Education and Reform Act passed the House on Feb. 15. It would amend Title III to substantially slow down the process of having illegal barriers removed. Moreover, there is nothing in the bill that prevents business owners from using the law to intentionally delay removing those barriers.

Under the proposal, when a person with a disability was prevented from accessing a business due to an illegal barrier, they would be required to write the business owner before they could file a lawsuit. That may seem reasonable enough, but the required letter would probably have to be drafted by an attorney. It would be required to include:

  • The property address
  • The specific sections of the ADA allegedly being violated
  • Whether the barrier to access was temporary or permanent
  • Whether the person had requested assistance with removing the barrier

Once the letter was sent, there would be a potentially lengthy series of delays. The business owner would have 60 days for an initial response and then 120 additional days in which to make "substantial progress" on changes. If substantial progress were made but it was not sufficient to resolve the problem, the person with a disability would presumably need to start the process over again. Only if no substantial progress were made, it seems, would a lawsuit be allowed.

What is motivating the changes? Some business owners say that professional plaintiffs sometimes target businesses for lawsuits by dropping by and seeking out small accessibility issues. It is unclear just how common such a thing might be.

Also, some businesses argue that Title III of the ADA contains too many technical requirements for businesses to reasonably follow.

In an op-ed piece in The Hill, former governor Tom Ridge said that the ADA's "guarantees are now at risk" because the bill would eliminate the incentive for businesses to proactively comply with the ADA and would allow them to avoid compliance for six months or more.

The bill does not affect other parts of the ADA, such as Title I, which applies to employment.

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