Walter L. Newton

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 helped create access to hundreds of places and activities that were at one time off limits to people with disabilities. Part of the act requires that businesses offer reasonable accommodations to both disabled employees and the general public.

There is no doubt in my mind that this act has opened up a new frontier for those people who in the past, had to sit on the sidelines while their able friends and companions enjoyed their unlimited mobility.

I’ve personally seen how this act has spread its influence to other countries that have enacted similar legislation, where now many historical monuments and sites are accessible to almost anyone.

You know that a big “but” is coming

But, it has opened the door to frivolous lawsuits and abuse of our legal system, to the detriment of good-hearted merchants who have strived to apply ADA rules and guidance to their places of business.

This brings me to the Riverbend Market and Eatery in Bailey. It closed Oct. 30, due to a legal firm in Florida, which has sued almost 70 businesses here in Colorado, claiming the establishments were not in compliance with the ADA.

In a press release, Michael Abbondanza, the owner of the Riverbend, explains what happened:

“As many of you know we are one of many restaurants that are being sued by a group alleging American with Disabilities Act violations. Just so you know, we had gone through great expense to make sure this sixty-year-old building is totally up to code with Park County and Colorado state regulations and have the Certificate of Occupancy to prove it.

“We are being victimized by a Palm Beach, Florida man, Santiago Abreau, and his Coral Springs attorney Jason Weiss, in conjunction with two Denver attorneys Brett Huff and Richard Leslie, who work for the Florida people here locally.

“The Florida group has filed lawsuits in many parts of the country and now have almost seventy suits here in Colorado as their opening salvo. Santiago allegedly visited the Riverbend a couple of months after we opened, most likely on their way to Breckenridge’s historic district where they filed multiple suits.

“All the suits are the same, claiming Santiago, a supposed handicapped individual, was barred entry to the establishment for a variety of reasons and could not enjoy using the establishment … they seek out businesses that have a corporate structure and then sue in federal court where in order to defend oneself you must have an attorney. The attorney for such a case begins at $15,000 - $20,000.

“The attorney Brett Huff who filed the suit said he would go away for $15,000. I do not do well with extortion. Although the federal judge was magnanimous in his behavior and appointed us an excellent attorney who is working for free … we will still be forced out even if we win.”

House bill H.R.241

House bill H.R.241 amends the ADA act to “prohibit an aggrieved person from commencing a civil action for discrimination based on the failure to remove a structural barrier to entry into an existing public accommodation unless the owner or operator of such accommodation: (1) is provided a written notice specific enough to identify such barrier; and (2) has, within specified time periods, either failed to provide the aggrieved person with a written description outlining improvements that will be made to remove such barrier or provided such description and failed to remove such barrier.”

H.R.241 is designed to “impose notice and a compliance opportunity to be provided before commencement of a private civil action.”

It gives a business owner 160 days to correct an ADA violation, after that business has been given a description of the violation.

The bill was sponsored by Ken Calvert (R-CA-42) and cosponsored by Colorado representative Mike Coffman (R-CO-6). This bill has languished in committee for almost two years. The essence of this bill will allow a business time to correct any ADA violations, before an aggrieved person can sue.

As a reporter and then editor of this paper, I have dealt with many of the businessmen in this county. Each area of this county has been working on a steady basis to bring new business to the county.

The Riverbend was the only authentic Italian restaurant in the Bailey area. Abbondanza brought his culinary skills into a rural community, offering residents a dining experience that formerly, they could only have if they drove toward the Denver area.

Instead, one man and a battery of lawyers ran though Colorado, performing legal extortion and placing our business communities in jeopardy.

In my opinion, H.R.241 needs to get out the black hole it has been wasting away in and our Congress should be acting on this bipartisan bill sooner than later. It is a sensible response to these sort of petty lawsuits.

I support the spirit of the ADA and the adoption of it has done much good over the past 25 years. Even though I’m an able-bodied person, I’ll never know if I’ll need its provisions sometime in the future.

At the same time, the ADA can’t exist in a vacuum, impervious to logic and common sense. We all want a fair shake and H.R.241 gives business people the opportunity to correct their mistakes and in the long run, this sort of amendment will only strengthen the ADA for disabled citizens.

If you agree, call or write Rep. Coffman or any of the representatives who are cosponsoring this bill. You can access all of the information on H.R.241 at https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/241.

Let’s give our business community a helping hand. We need them as much as they need us.

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