(FOX 9) - A convicted murderer and two others with criminal records are targeting mom and pop businesses in the Twin Cities and suing them for non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But it appears the lawsuits are doing little to help those with disabilities.
Tin Cup's in St. Paul was sued six months ago, stunning owner Gidget Bailey.
“I was served and told that I was not handicapped accessible and this attorney wanted $3,500 to go away,” she told Fox 9.
According to the lawsuit, the restroom stalls weren’t wide enough, and there weren’t enough handicapped parking spaces or tables at the correct height.
SUED BY CONVICTED MURDERER
All this in a building Bailey doesn’t own, sued by a customer she doesn’t know: Jerald Boitnott.
Fox 9 watched one day as the man carried his walker up a flight of icy steps to his home, seemingly having no trouble walking without the walker.
Boitnott’s been a busy man, since getting out of prison in 2012.
Back in 1987, Boitnott shot a man in the head who he suspected of stealing his record albums. He did 24 years for first degree murder.
Still on parole, Boitnott’s name is on 31 lawsuits under the ADA.
Boitnott recently filed a federal lawsuit against the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, claiming their parking payment stations are too tall. Even though there’s a payment app, if someone has a disabled placard, they don’t even have to pay the meter.
The FOX 9 Investigators discovered Boitnott is just one player in a bigger picture. There’s also Gerald Doyen who’s name is on 33 separate ADA lawsuits.
When Fox 9 asked to talk to him, he replied, "talk to my lawyer". Doyen said he didn't have his attorney's name with him and finished with "I have no comments."
Doyen sued Candyland in St. Paul because their vintage 1940’s counter was too high, even though there’s a low table for those in wheel chairs.
“We’ve never had a problem with this customer. I don’t even know if it was a customer," said Candyland owner Brenda Lamb.
The sweet shop tried to fight the lawsuit which resulted in $14,000 in legal bills.
As many other businesses discovered, a settlement often doesn't require any repairs to make the building more accessible.
Doyen also sued Chicago’s Taste Authority, for the incline of its entrance ramp and multiple issues in the bathroom.
“I thought ambulance chasers were bad as far as attorneys. This is worse. This is someone making money off someone who has no issue,” said owner Rob Dubnecay. “We found out 20 plus businesses on West 7th were all served in a few days of each other.
They are called drive-by-lawsuits, targeting a who’s who of Twin Cities businesses. The lawsuits are nearly identical.
"We are not blowing any of these off or ignoring these rules," Dubnecay said. “What makes this guy any different from Al Capone or paying for protection money, it’s the same thing.”
When Fox 9 asked Doyen if he is "doing good" with the lawsuits, he replied "I have nothing to say."
THE BUSINESS OF ADA LAWSUITS
Boitnott and Doyen are members of the Midwest Disability Initiative, an organization whose motto is “make a trail and leave a path” by “holding businesses that ignore the requirements of the ADA accountable.”
Midwest Disability Initiative was formed as a non-profit three years ago by Traci Bradley and Craig Seifert. Both have criminal records. Last year, it became a for-profit business, operating out their home in an apartment building in South Minneapolis, which ironically, does not appear to be wheelchair accessible.
Seifert, who acts as an expert witness for the group, did not return calls or emails from Fox 9.
At his attorney's office, he told Fox 9: “I have nothing to say to you."
"You’ll have to leave and make an appointment," his attorney Patrick Michenfelder told Fox 9.
Michenfelder is the lawyer for Boitnott, Doyen and Midwest Disability Initiative.
ADA COMPLIANCE CAN OVERWHELM A SMALL BUSINESSES
Julee Quarvee-Peterson is an ADA Consultant, who is known as the ‘Latrine Queen’ and ‘Parking Princess,’ because she said, “That’s where I spend my time.”
She is very familiar with Midwest Disability Initiative. “I got six calls for six complaints in one day,” she said.
Businesses genuinely want to follow the law, she said, but they are just overwhelmed. “There’s 87 things in a toilet room covered in the code.”
According to Quarvee-Peterson, most city and state inspectors won’t tell a business if they’re out of compliance with the ADA and many businesses assume, incorrectly, they may have been grandfathered in.
Adopted by Congress nearly 30 years ago, the ADA requires businesses to make accommodations for the disabled that are “readily achievable.”
“The idea of readily achievable or reasonableness. Cheap and easy is now the paraphrase,” she said.
"NOT A MONEY-MAKING VENTURE"
“What I hear repeatedly from my clients is ‘geez, Pat, we never knew.' said Patrick Moore, a Cambridge attorney who has defended three businesses from ADA lawsuits. “It’s a bit like being called a bigot."
Typically, the lawsuits are served on a business with an offer to settle, for between $3,500 to $8,000. In many cases, the lawsuits are never even filed with the court.
Moore knows of only one case that made it to trial.
“That tells me these lawsuits are not about what we claim they’re about. Are they about accessibility for folks with disabilities or is it extortion, which is it," Moore questioned.
He has filed counter claims against Midwest Disability Initiative under the Racketeering, Influence, and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), claiming the group is extorting money from businesses.
Once again, the cases were eventually settled.
But the Fox 9 Investigators have learned the attorney, Michenfelder, is now under investigation by the State Lawyers Board in connection with the ADA lawsuits.
Fox 9 asked Doyen if he was getting some of the money from the lawsuits and he replied "no".
It’s an important question, because under the ADA, lawyers are entitled to attorney fees. But there are no damages as such. The reward is supposed to be greater access for the disabled.
The way Moore sees it, the ADA is a civil rights law, not a money making venture for attorneys and their clients.
“I was born with Spina Bifida; I’m paralyzed from the waist down,” said Moore. It’s not that I’m against the ADA. I’m very much for it but I feel like this law is being used in a perverted way by this law firm and these plaintiffs.”
In Minnesota, the legislature passed a law requiring potential plaintiffs to give businesses a two month window to fix any deficiencies before they can be sued. As a result, many of the ADA lawsuits have moved to federal court.
The attorney, Michenfelder, who declined our repeated requests for an interview, is now moving to chains. He recently joined a Pennsylvania law firm in a class action lawsuit against the restaurant chain Applebee's.