In June, a paraplegic man named John Deutsh sued a Public Storage facility in Austin, TX, in federal court, claiming the business failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
That same month, Deutsh sued 14 other retail or restaurant businesses in separate lawsuits in the same court for alleged non-compliance with ADA. In the previous month, Deutsh sued five other establishments for alleged ADA violations.
As of July 2015, Deutsh’s case against Public Storage was pending in federal court.
So, what about your facility? Would it stand up to ADA scrutiny? Here are four things to keep in mind when it comes to ADA compliance.
1. Know the law.
Visit the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division website to find the most recent ADA standards for accessible design and ADA disability nondiscrimination regulations. President George H.W. Bush signed the act into law on July 26, 1990.
If a facility was built before 1985, the owner has some leeway in bringing the building up to ADA standards, depending on several factors outlined in the federal law. For new buildings, make sure the architect and seller verify that the structure is ADA-compliant.
Furthermore, search your state legislature’s website for disability laws and familiarize yourself with city accessibility regulations.
2. Meet scoping and dispersion requirements.
“Scoping” refers to the minimum number of parking spaces required by ADA compared with how many other spaces a facility has. The numbers are set by ADA and listed in the standards for accessible design. For example, if a facility has up to 25 parking spaces, you need at least one accessible parking space.
“Dispersion” requires that storage units are dispersed throughout the “various classes of spaces provided.” This vaguely worded definition can be tricky. When in doubt, consult an attorney specializing in real estate or self-storage.
3. Remember: It’s more than wheelchairs.
ADA defines a person with a disability as a someone with a “physical or mental impairment” that substantially limits at least one major life activity. It also includes people who don’t have a disability but are “regarded” as having a disability.
“The big one today is the mental one,” said Jeffrey Greenberger, a partner at Cincinnati, OH, law firm Katz Greenberger & Norton. That means you’ll need to allow someone’s companion or service animal in your office if necessary.
4. Be ready to comply.
Storage owners should brief employees on handling requests for accommodation. If a disabled customer asks you to change the handle on a unit door to make it open by remote, “you’d better have the answer ready right then and there,” Greenberger said. “Saying you’ll talk to the owner and get back with them in two weeks isn’t going to fly.”
Storage facilities generally have room outside for navigation of wheelchairs, but owners run into trouble with sloping near the units and in the office, which is clearly a place of public accommodation.
A good-faith effort goes a long way toward avoiding ADA lawsuits. “If someone in a wheelchair can’t lift a door, most operators by nature will try to find a solution,” Greenberger said.
A spate of ADA non-compliance lawsuits, all filed by the same plaintiff, isn’t unusual. Disability advocacy groups frequently send a disabled person to businesses specifically looking for ADA violations so they can file lawsuits and force compliance.
Deutsh’s lawsuit does not mention any such group. His attorney, Carlos Rosales, declined to comment except to say: “Disabled Americans have the same right to access businesses, restaurants and storage facilities, just as other Americans do.”
Clemente Teng, a spokesman for Public Storage, declined to comment on Deutsh’s lawsuit.
ADA suits often are opportunistic, prompted by violations that can be seen from the street, said Carlos Kaslow, general counsel for the Self Storage Association and an attorney with the Self Storage Legal Network.
“If the facility does not have handicapped parking, wheelchair access into the office and an office that meets ADA standards, a lawsuit is at risk,” Kaslow said.
Most states limit damages to the owner bringing the facility into compliance and paying attorney’s fees, Kaslow said. A few states allow damages for each separate violation.
According to Deutsh’s lawsuit, the Public Storage facility in Austin had no ADA-compliant parking spaces, an entrance threshold that was too high and an improperly sloped entrance ramp.
Deutsh seeks a judgment declaring that Public Storage violated ADA, and ordering the facility to add the required number of accessible parking spaces and install lower thresholds at the entrance. The suit also seeks $300 for each violation of the Texas Human Resources Code.