Hickenlooper appointee sues 64 small businesses over alleged disability violations
February 13, 2017
A gubernatorial appointee who chairs the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council has filed dozens of lawsuits against small businesses over the past two months claiming they violate federal disability laws.
The 64 lawsuits filed so far by Mellisa Umphenour of Arvada are nearly identical in content and scope to scores of others filed in U.S. District Court last year in Colorado – and thousands of others filed in federal courts nationwide the past few years. Umphenour filed the suits on behalf of her 11-year-old son, who is disabled.
Often called "drive-by lawsuits," they rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act and are often filed by disabled people or their caretakers. Each lawsuit typically alleges a range of ADA violations such as the height of a bathroom mirror, the location or wording of handicapped-accessible parking signs, or the placement of toilet-paper holders.
Business owners call the lawsuits predatory because they appear out of nowhere and often demand thousands of dollars in settlement costs. Sometimes the plaintiffs are hired by attorneys for a small cut of the settlement fees, according to a federal lawsuit in California by homeless plaintiffs who said they weren't properly paid.
Umphenour did not respond to e-mails or messages from The Denver Post, nor did her attorney, James Carr, who recently set up shop in Colorado as ADA Justice Advocates at an address that is a UPS Store in Boulder.
"My personal feeling … is lawsuits sometimes are the only way to get things done," said Marcia Tewell, executive director of the state disabilities council. "The sad part is sometimes you have to hit people where you get their attention."
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Tewell said Umphenour recently told her of the lawsuits, but she would not elaborate on the conversation.
The state-funded council works on getting people with disabilities to live regular lives through policy, innovative grants and outreach, Tewell said. Umphenour's suits do not mention the council or her affiliation with it, nor do they violate state ethics rules.
The lawsuits often come in bunches – Umphenour's attorney filed 20 of them on one day – and reflect a similar pattern. The plaintiffs say they visited a particular business only to be discriminated against when they found specific violations.
The suits are controversial in that some see them as little more than attorneys banking on a quick moneymaking scheme that uses the ADA as a cover, while others say it's the only way to advocate for compliance of a 27-year-old law from businesses that should know better.
Read the full story on The Denver Post's website.