SEATTLE — A local battle is being waged in Seattle on behalf of disabled tourists with worldwide access to hotel websites.
Federal complaints have recently been filed in the United States District Court for Western Washington against seven Seattle hotels alleging they don't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, in effect since 1992.
However, a general manager for one of those hotels told KIRO 7 the lawsuits are simply a: "shakedown" for money.
Mike Meagher has worked at The Moore Hotel for more than 30 years. As GM, he said every cent after expenses is spent maintaining the more than 100-year old building on Second Avenue in the heart of downtown Seattle.
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“We spend a lot of money on maintenance,” Meagher recently told KIRO 7. “We run a fairly budget-minded hotel. Any expenditure outside the norm really affects my bottom line,” which is why Meagher was stunned to be served with a federal lawsuit. He said when he received the civil complaint he immediately saw “dollar signs. It was all about a shake-down,” Meagher said.
The Moore and the six other Seattle properties – including The Mayflower Park Hotel, Sorrento Hotel, Inn at Queen Anne, Belltown Inn, Mediterranean Inn, and Roy Street Commons -- were all recently sued by a man who claims the hotels violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, because -- according to court documents --- all defendants' "website reservations systems fail to provide information about the accessible features of the Hotel and its rooms to persons with disabilities"…"thereby denying those individuals the same benefits and privileges afforded to guests without disabilities."
Meagher believes “the ADA law is a good law” but said he is frustrated by the lawsuit because the Moore offers guests ADA-compliant rooms.
However, the hotel’s website did not make that clear.
Meagher said he remedied that the day after being sued; “All the person had to do is call us, or send an email, and we could have rectified the situation immediately.”
Lawsuits similar to the ones filed against the Seattle hotels -- with one plaintiff and multiple defendants --- are sometimes called "Drive By Lawsuits." News outlets nationwide have covered the thousands of national cases that claim businesses violate the ADA because they aren't physically accessible to the disabled. Often those making the claims don’t physically visit the sites; plaintiffs simply “Drive By” to see whether wheelchair ramps are available.
All of the Seattle properties are being sued by the same man, Carmen John Perri, who lives in California, where state law awards a minimum statutory damage of $4,000 per violation.
Lawyer David Spellman of Buchalter in Seattle represents The Moore Hotel. “Our initial feeling was, why are they suing us under California law? We’re in Washington,” Spellman told KIRO 7.
“What we discovered was this plaintiff had filed over 200 lawsuits in California and now he was moving on to Washington to file the same kind of lawsuit,” Spellman said.
By looking through federal court filings, KIRO 7 confirmed that Perri has filed hundreds of similar lawsuits in California. So many, that California lawyer Ara Sahelian calls Perri a "frequent filer" on his website that warns of “ADA abuses.”
Spellman believes smaller properties, such as his client, are more vulnerable to being sued for alleged ADA noncompliance than big hotel chains. He said plaintiff Perri “targeted the low-lying fruit, which are the smaller hotels in town who might not have known about the requirements for the websites. And then you pick them off, versus if you sue the major brands in the hotel industry. They have in-house attorneys to deal with all that.”
While Spellman and Meagher are skeptical about a California man's motivation to sue multiple Northwest businesses, Seattle University Law Professor Brooke Coleman defends the practice and calls it “an enforcement mechanism.”
“If your goal is to enforce what the ADA requires above all things else, then yes, it makes sense for one plaintiff to do it because it’s the most efficient,” Coleman told KIRO 7. However, she admits the motivation can be money. “The downside of that is that there’s room for perverse incentives,” Coleman explained.
“Perverse incentives are created by a scheme that allows for attorneys’ fees, so you can see the instinct to increase the amount of breadth, how many cases you have, because you increase your chances of getting more attorneys’ fees,” Coleman added.
KIRO 7 wanted to know the California man's motivation for his Seattle filings. His local lawyer, Dan Fiorito, emailed that Carmen John Perri "travels and knows the importance of accessible travel for disabled people."
"These cases have been filed to enforce an important law enacted to accommodate disabled travelers. Making travel accessible to all, including the disabled, is not only mandated by law, but it is an important value of our society," Fiorito’s email continued.
Kyann Flint believes that "lawsuits are probably, unfortunately, the best way to go about" enforcing ADA compliance. Flint works for Bellingham-based Abilitrek a company that reviews disabled accessibility but also works with businesses to help them achieve full ADA compliance. She is also a world traveler who has sued five separate organizations in Whatcom County for ADA non-compliance and told KIRO 7 that – while she doesn't know Perri or his reason for filing multiple lawsuits -- money was never her motivation.
Flint said the disabled community is “frustrated because the law has been around for 30-years, so how many times does a person with a disability have to ask? How many places do we have to say ‘hey, you’re not in compliance?’”
Avoiding a lawsuit is simple, according to Flint. “Make it compliant. I don’t need money. I just want you to come up to code.”
John Morris echoed the same sentiment during a Skype interview with KIRO 7 while traveling in Kenya. “If a hotel has a website that allows able bodied guests to make a reservation than it should also be accessible to those with disabilities,” he said.
Morris writes the popular WheelchairTravel blog -- with 150,000 page views per month.
The Florida-based triple amputee defends using the federal court system to enforce long-standing ADA laws, no matter how many cases a plaintiff files. “The lawsuits get a lot of bad press because they harm business owners. They cost money, particularly when it’s a single hotel owner.” Morris acknowledged “that can be financially challenging.”
However, he said “there needs to be an expectation of ADA compliance so that people with disabilities can travel confidently and safely.”
According to Seattle lawyer Dan Fiorito’s email to KIRO 7, he does not expect any of the federal cases against the local hotels to go to trial. "Most defendants see the value in becoming compliant with the law and offering good customer service to everybody, including the disabled," he wrote.
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