CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) – The bathrooms in the country club were opulent, with marble floors and antique furniture. But months after purchasing the club, the owners gutted them.

The problem: The walls at the Carolina Club were about an inch too narrow under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Robert Cohen and his attorney sued the club in 2003, saying he felt discriminated against. He sued the same business in 1998 when it was under different ownership. Cohen has also filed ADA lawsuits against Publix supermarkets, McDonald’s, Comfort Suites and others – more than 300 federal lawsuits in Florida over the past several years.

Disabled people are not supposed to receive monetary damages from lawsuits over alleged ADA violations, but their attorneys receive fees. Some court-watchers suspect that some disabled people are getting a cut under the table from their attorneys and that these bursts of lawsuits are nothing but shakedown attempts.

“They’re what’s called drive-by lawsuits,” said David Goldfarb, a Miami-based ADA consultant who testifies for business owners who are being sued. “One plaintiff’s attorney and one plaintiff will file 10 lawsuits in the same day on the same street. You throw out 10 and hope eight of them stick.”

Cohen is 69 and gets around on a scooter because of arthritis. He bristles at the notion the lawsuits are unethical.

“I have never made five cents or anything. Yes, the lawyers get rich on this, but you know what, what is our choice?” the Coral Springs man said. “If the companies will not voluntarily comply, how are we supposed to get our civil rights?”

Passed by Congress in 1990, the ADA requires ramps, parking stalls and signs, and dictates the height of countertops, the placement of toilet grab bars and the width of doors.

Carolina Club owner and general manager Joe Pace said he spent $60,000 fixing the club to conform to the federal law, but Cohen’s attorney refused to drop the suit. The attorney asked for a $20,000 settlement fee, and finally backed off for $10,000, Pace said.

“This is extortion at its utmost. It’s a payback scam,” Pace said.

Cohen’s attorney, Todd Shulby, said business owners sued under the ADA have had ample time – 14 years – to comply voluntarily.

“Nowhere in the ADA does it limit the civil rights of disabled individuals, nor cap the number of times they may assert their rights, nor should it,” Shulby said in an e-mail.

Some experts blame the way the law is drafted.

“Sure, someone is making money off of these lawsuits,” said Ruth Colker, a professor of law at Ohio State University. “But the problem with this statute is that there is no effective enforcement mechanism if we don’t have these kinds of lawsuits.”

A Miami man, Steven Brother, and his attorney filed about 200 ADA lawsuits in the past few years. Eight of Brother’s complaints were filed the first week of April, each bearing the same wording and typos. Only the defendants’ names were different.

Brother, who is deaf and is paralyzed in one leg after a 1989 car accident, often files on behalf of what he calls the Disability Advocates and Counseling Group. It is not clear how many members his group represents. Repeated calls for comment from Brother and his attorney William Charouhis were not returned.

It is nearly impossible to say how much money attorneys make on ADA cases.

“Most of these lawyers refuse to settle unless the fee is kept confidential,” said Pace’s attorney, William Salim. “It’s a scam. We all suspect that the fees are being split with the plaintiffs, but of course we can’t prove it.”

Former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., unsuccessfully pushed for a law last year that would give businesses notified of ADA violations 90 days to comply before they could be sued. (Foley resigned in September over sexually explicit messages he sent to teenage boys who had worked as pages on Capitol Hill.)

U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell of Orlando noted in a 2004 ruling that a paraplegic had filed some 200 ADA lawsuits in just a few years, most of them using the same attorney.

“The current ADA lawsuit binge is, therefore, essentially driven by economics – that is the economics of attorney’s fees,” Presnell wrote. He said the paraplegic’s testimony left the impression that he is a “professional pawn in a scheme to bilk attorney’s fees” from those being sued.


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