South Florida businesses suffer from ADA 'drive-by' lawsuits

Florida ranks second in country for ADA lawsuits

By Amy Viteri - Investigative Reporter

MIAMI - The fight over disabled rights has led to Florida being No. 2 in the country when it comes to Americans with Disabilities Act public accommodation lawsuits. 

A new state law aims to curb lawsuits that critics claim are being used to take advantage of businesses, not help those with disabilities. 

"What they're doing is like a drive-by suing," property owner Juan de Dios Cabrera told Local 10 News. 

He told Local 10 News investigative reporter Amy Viteri that he's owned the property where La Estrella de Oro pawn shop on Northwest 36th Avenue in Miami has been for 20 years. 

He's one of several businesses owners who was sued for violations of the ADA, but only learned of those violations through a lawsuit.

"They just drive by, no sign, boom, sue," Cabrera explained. "No notice, nothing. They just sue you." 

In May, a man named Renzo Barberi sued him over violations in his parking lot, which Cabrera claimed was being renovated at the time.

He's not alone. Barberi, a so-called ADA tester, has filed more than 400 public accommodation lawsuits against all kinds of businesses, including several others on Cabrera's street. The problem, Cabrera said, is that Barberi was never at his business.

"There's no record of him coming even close to this place," he said. 

Rodney Regan went through the same ordeal at his restaurant in Lake Worth, Brogue's Down Under, when he was sued for violations in his bathroom. Among the violations, toilet-roll holders were inches too close to the handrail. 

Regan said his business has worked to be welcoming to all patrons. The restaurant has sponsored and even hosted events for local charity Wheels for Kids, which helps children with disabilities. 

He said whoever came to photograph his business never checked his other bathroom, which is fully accessible. Still, Regan's attorney told him it would be cheaper to settle the lawsuit for $8,500. 

"Pretty upset, yep," Regan said. 

Janet Hoyt, who sued Regan, has filed more than 100 lawsuits, including against nearly every other business on Regan's street. Hoyt also sued bridal retailer Alfred Angelo, which closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy in July. 

Regan told Viteri that the business can find no evidence of Janet Hoyt ever being there.

"She gets these guys to come and do the photographing and then they use her name," Regan said. "That's what I believe." 

Numbers from the International Council of Shopping Centers show ADA lawsuits jumped 243 percent between 2013-16. Florida ranks second in the country, behind California. 

Local 10 News tracked down Renzo Barberi, the man behind many of these lawsuits. 

"It's an issue that I take dear to my heart, obviously," Barberi, who uses a wheelchair to get around, told Viteri.

He said he got involved in the lawsuits after losing the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident. He now lives off disability payments. 

"What kind of compensation do you receive from these suits?" Viteri asked. 

"Absolutely no compensation for me," Barberi said. "What I'm searching for is compliance."

Barberi maintains that he visited every single one of the more than 400 businesses he has sued, even though many claim to have no record of him being there.

"I can't speak for the businesses or whatever they say," he said. 

Barberi said, in his experience, legal action is the only way to motivate businesses to make changes.

When asked if it was fair to sue businesses without any warning or opportunity to correct the problems, Barberi answered, "After 20 years of the law being out there, absolutely."

Some state lawmakers disagree. In July, Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 727 into law. It gives businesses the chance to hire someone to pinpoint problems and file a remediation plan with the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulations, which could protect them in future lawsuits.

"The surge is thanks to a small group of individuals that have turned frivolous ADA lawsuits into a cottage industry," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Tom Leek, R-Daytona Beach, wrote in a statement. "My bill was authored to take the ADA from the drive-by-lawsuit industry and give it back to the people for whom the ADA was written for -- Americans with disabilities." 

Carlos Gazitua is president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, which pushed for the bill and wants to get the word out.

"I've had personal sit downs with owners crying about this issue and saying that this is, in essence, legal extortion," Gazitua said. 

Cabrera was ordered by a judge to pay $11,500 to Barberi and his attorneys in September. He said no one notified him of the order until U.S. marshals showed up at the pawn shop on his property threatening to seize goods. Ultimately, he said, he had to pay close to $16,000 in cash. 

"They know exactly what they're doing," Cabrera said. "They're stealing our money. They're stealing people's money." 

Local 10 News also contacted ADA tester Janet Hoyt through her attorney, but he declined requests for an interview.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations said its website should be operational in the coming days for businesses to register a plan, but in the meantime, owners can contact the agency directly. 

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