MIDLAND-ODESSA, TX (KWES) - A string of recent lawsuits filed against more than 20 West Texas businesses caught the attention of local lawmakers and prompted Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) to take action on the national stage.
Florida-based attorneys have sued restaurant and shop owners throughout the Midland-Odessa area during the past several months, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and seeking settlement amounts between $6,000 and $10,000.
Conaway spoke Thursday on the U.S. House of Representatives floor to address the "wave of frivolous lawsuits flooding [his] district."
"These lawsuits use the Americans with Disabilities Act - a law that has done tremendous good in our nation - as legal cover to sue small 'mom & pop' businesses for often unnoticed and easily correctable ADA violations," he said.
Defendant Bertha Ramirez, the owner of La Mision at 1008 S. Big Spring St., said she had been accused of discriminating against visually impaired customers by failing to provide Braille menus.
A plaintiff in a separate case claimed the design of her restaurant's front entrance failed the meet the needs of customers in wheelchairs.
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs could not be reached for comment.
"These lawsuits are not fair," Ramirez said after receiving the petitions in January. "This is all [the result of] somebody looking for ways to use [the ADA] to make some quick money off of us."
Attorneys behind the ADA lawsuits use digital mapping technology to zero in on potential violations, including faulty parking lot layouts and steep entrance ramps, according to Conaway.
"Often, these attorneys... don't live in the state," he said on the House floor. "Some will use Google Earth to find violations and then file a lawsuit remotely."
Most defendants were unaware they had violated the ADA until they were served with court papers, Conaway added.
"Instead of demanding the violation be fixed, these lawsuits try to make a quick buck by settling out of court," he explained. "The businesses have little choice: pay the settlement or pay expensive, business-ending attorney fees to fight the charge."
Ramirez said "several" neighboring business owners chose to pay the four-figure settlements after being slapped with similar lawsuits but she decided to hire a Midland-based attorney.
Meanwhile, Conaway is backing the ADA Education and Reform Act, a bill that would prohibit people from sending demand letters or other pre-suit notifications alleging an ADA violation unless the letter specifies the circumstances under which an individual was actually denied access.
The notification must specify the address of property, the specific ADA sections alleged to have been violated, whether a request for assistance in removing an architectural barrier was made and whether the barrier was permanent or temporary, the bill states.
"I will work to get this bill passed so West Texans won't be abused by predatory attorneys who care about money, not about helping those with disabilities," said Conaway.