The Verdict: Can Plaintiffs Make Money from ADA Lawsuits?

Published July 14, 2020

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. The ADA ensures that people with disabilities have equal access in many areas including employment, education, and public accommodations.

Under Title III of the ADA, people with disabilities can sue places of public accommodation for denying equal access. The lawsuits can be filed in federal court. Similarly, investigations into ADA violations can be initiated through a complaint with the Department of Justice. In recent years, some plaintiffs and their attorneys have come under scrutiny for seemingly lining their pockets by abusing the system that was designed to protect people with disabilities. How much of this perception is actually true?

Under the ADA, plaintiffs who sue for violations may not collect monetary damages. The law allows for remedies of the violations through court orders, and for plaintiffs to recover legal fees that result from the lawsuit. In ADA lawsuits started by the Department of Justice, the defendant is not responsible for paying the Department’s legal fees if they lose, but they may be responsible for paying compensatory relief and civil penalties in cases of public importance and repeated abuse.

Yes, plaintiffs and lawyers can profit

Despite the prohibition against awarding monetary damages to the plaintiff, ADA lawsuits can still be lucrative for plaintiffs and their attorneys. As previously mentioned, defendants who lose ADA cases are required to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees. For lawsuits that drag out for extended periods, this can become quite costly. There are also instances where a plaintiff will file a lawsuit under the ADA and the defendant will quickly settle the suit with a cash payment. This can often be cheaper than going through the legal process and losing, resulting in legal fees and the cost of remedying the violation.

Some states do have laws that allow plaintiffs to collect monetary damages in ADA lawsuits. Most notable in this group is the state of California. California has two laws that allow plaintiffs to collect monetary damages in ADA lawsuits: the California Disabled Persons Act and the Unruh Act. The California Disabled Persons Act allows for damages of $1,000 per offense, while the Unruh Act allows for $4,000 per offense.

There has, in fact, been an increase in ADA lawsuits filed across the country over the past several years. Research shows that there has been a steady increase in ADA Title III lawsuits filed. In 2013, there was a total of 2,722 ADA lawsuits filed compared to a total of 11,053 in 2019. Leading the increase in cases are California, New York, and Florida. Combined, these three states accounted for 84% of all ADA lawsuits filed in the United States in 2019. Driving the increase in lawsuits are cases involving Braille gift cards, web accessibility, hotel room dispersion, and inaccessible facilities.

Recovering legal fees

Although it is possible for a plaintiff and their attorney to recover legal fees and perhaps secure a settlement, it can be impossible to determine how much plaintiffs benefit monetarily from ADA lawsuits; but, the plaintiffs named in such lawsuits should benefit from injunctions forcing compliance with the ADA.

The plaintiffs can also recover legal fees, but without examining each case individually, no one can determine if the plaintiffs are sharing in the recovery with their attorney. Settlements of ADA lawsuits can benefit the plaintiff and their attorney, but such settlements are typically confidential. Only in states like California is it possible to put an approximate number on how much a plaintiff was awarded because of laws like the California Disabled Persons Act or the Unruh Act.

Critics will point to the growing number of ADA lawsuits being filed as evidence of abuse of the system, but the merits of each lawsuit are different. The best way to avoid ADA lawsuits is for businesses and other public accommodations to comply with the law.

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