Is a Disability Lawsuit Coming to Your Property?

By Ryan Sugden
If you own or lease commercial property in Minnesota, you may be at risk of being named in a series of lawsuits targeting Minnesota business owners.

Why Lawsuits Are Being Filed

Commercial property owners and tenants across Minnesota are being struck with a spate of lawsuits alleging technical violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In most cases, the plaintiff is a non-profit organization that has filed a flurry of ADA claims against Minnesota property owners. The plaintiff’s litigation plan is straightforward: a disabled individual allegedly visits a commercial property (like a strip mall or restaurant) looking to identify ADA violations. Such violations can include improperly striped parking lots or a doorway that is a few inches too narrow.

After visiting a site, the plaintiff’s attorney may send a broadly-worded letter to the property owner and tenant, claiming that “architectural barriers” exist on the property. Later, the plaintiff serves a lawsuit alleging violations of the federal ADA and Minnesota Human Rights Act and seeking an injunction, damages, attorneys’ fees and civil fines.

Before filing the lawsuit, the plaintiff often seeks a cash settlement payment, even if the alleged ADA violations have been corrected. Litigating over ADA violations can be costly even if the alleged violations are minor, and some business owners have been forced to settle to avoid the cost of defense. The Minneapolis Star Tribune has highlighted the impact that these lawsuits have had on small business owners and the litigation tactics of the plaintiff’s counsel: Flurry of Disability Lawsuits Leaves Minnesota Proprietors Baffled.

Requirements Under the ADA

If your property is open to the public, it may be considered a place of public accommodation and required to comply with the ADA. Among other things, the ADA requires a certain amount of accessible parking, as well as accessible entrances and aisles to allow access to goods and services.

Under the ADA, small businesses must typically remove architectural barriers in existing facilities when it is "readily achievable" to do so. Readily achievable barrier removal may include installing an entrance ramp, widening a doorway, installing accessible door hardware, repositioning furniture, or restriping a parking lot.

How to Avoid Litigation (or Respond If It Is Too Late)

There are a number of steps you can take to avoid litigation or effectively manage it if your business or property has already been served with a complaint:

  • As your business embarks on its summer maintenance schedule, take care to check compliance with ADA requirements. Consider enlisting an architect or building inspector to advise on requirements for restriping parking lots or other accessibility barriers. Other disability groups, such as the Minnesota State Council on Disability, have offered to conduct building “audits” to ensure compliance with the ADA. Preventative maintenance is especially important following the long winter months, as the ice and salt often erode sidewalks, entrance ramps and parking lot striping.
  • Do not ignore letters you receive claiming that your property or business has ADA violations. These letters typically precede litigation and should be addressed immediately. 

If you have received a letter or notice of ADA violations, or are served with a summons and complaint alleging violations, Stinson Leonard Street has represented a number of property owners in this type of litigation and can assist you in preparing your defense and limiting potential liability.

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