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His crusade: Accessibility for the disabled

Businesses ignored Joe Raetano when he suggested they install a ramp or widen a toilet stall. Then he got tough. Six months and 27 lawsuits later, the Clearwater resident says he's just getting started.

By Scott Barancik, Times Staff Writer
Published February 11, 2008


Inadequate handicapped parking is illegal, and one of many barriers the bay area's disabled face. To force change, Clearwater resident Joe Raetano recently begun suing business owners. "People have to get hit over the head with disability," he says.
photo
[Joseph Garnett, Jr. | Times]
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DUNEDIN - Many restaurants are closed to him. Same with motels, strip malls, even the bathroom at his doctor's office.

Joe Raetano, a wheelchair-using 66-year-old with only one useful hand, has tried reasoning with local property owners and managers. He has politely encouraged them to install a ramp, cut a curb or widen a toilet stall, as required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. They have politely ignored him.

This fall, the mild-mannered general contractor adopted a tougher approach: lawsuits. Raetano has sued 27 commercial property owners near his Clearwater apartment, including 10 along a stretch of Main Street in Dunedin. Every business he visits these days is a potential target. He estimates three of every four properties don't comply.

Critics use a variety of epithets for such suits: Legal extortion. Drive-bys. Welfare for lawyers. Many question the motivations of ADA vigilantes like Raetano and the lawyers who take their cases. "Unfortunately, some attorneys have taken it for a ride," says Dave Goldfarb, an ADA defense expert in Miami.

But Raetano says he doesn't get a penny for his efforts. And he claims milder measures simply don't work. "People have to get hit over the head with disability," he says, tightening the cap on a Pepsi bottle with his teeth.

Forcing the issue

There is no sign outside the Heritage Oaks office complex in Dunedin that says "Able-bodied only." For the disabled, there might as well be.

During an exterior tour of the sprawling, one-story building, home to Raetano's physician and nearly a dozen other professionals, barriers to wheelchair access are everywhere.

Handicapped parking spaces are in short supply. The few that are available lack an adjacent access lane, which wheelchair-accessible vans like Raetano's need in order to unfurl a ramp. He has to park diagonally across two regular spaces and then wheel himself back to the building through light parking-lot traffic.

Some curb cuts are dangerously steep. In the absence of concrete wheel stops, many parked cars nose into the narrow sidewalk, making passage difficult.

Midway through the tour, Heritage Oaks' lawyer, tenant Bob Tankel, walks over to introduce himself.

"I have no beef with (the ADA)," he tells Raetano with a smile. "Why would I? It's the law."

Although Tankel adds that he looks forward to fixing the problems, his court filings have taken a less obliging tone. One flatly denied that Heritage Oaks violates the ADA. Another argued that Raetano had no right to sue because his visits to the complex amounted to criminal trespassing.

"People who think the courtroom is about justice are watching too much TV," Tankel said later.

Mintek Mobile Data Solutions president Lind Hutton, who heads the Heritage Oaks owners association, admits his office probably isn't ADA compliant, but he questions whether it should have to be.

"We're not a Publix grocery store here," he says. "Now, obviously, if I were to hire somebody that was handicapped, then I would have to deal with making accommodations for that person. ... But I sometimes think this would be like somebody saying that my house isn't compliant. That fact of the matter is that if you don't have an invitation, you're not invited here."

Title III of the ADA does not apply to private residences. But the list of covered property types is extensive, including hotels, homeless shelters, restaurants, bars, theaters, stadiums, grocery stores, shopping centers, funeral parlors, zoos, schools and even golf courses.

Not always disabled

For wheelchair users like Raetano, life is a steady diet of exclusion and minor indignities.

Take the Dunkin' Donuts at 1461 Main St. in Dunedin. During a recent coffee break there, Raetano gave the store an ADA thumbs-up.

Its handicapped parking was adequate. The front door opened with minimal pressure. The counters were 36 inches high. The bathroom was wheelchair accessible.

The path to the bathroom, however, was a social obstacle course. To get there, a wheelchair user would have had to ask the two women seated near the exit to move their table and chairs, find a restaurant employee to move the mobile food carts that were blocking a hallway and relinquish all pretense of privacy.

If Raetano was annoyed, however, it was not apparent. A slightly built, bespectacled man with undisciplined hair, he left the Air Force in 1964 and spent the next 30 years in the construction business in Massachusetts.

His health declined shortly after moving to Florida. In 1996, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Not long after, he was in a car accident.

By the time he returned to his community-development job with Pinellas County, Raetano was in a wheelchair.

Today, Raetano runs a construction business that helps businesses comply with ADA accessibility rules.

Until recently he headed a local chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, where he got to know and admire a fiery disability activist from St. Petersburg named Johnny Long.

Before his death in 2006, Long filed ADA lawsuits against more than 200 businesses, including Busch Gardens, Morton Plant Hospital, the Sirata Beach Resort and the United Way of Tampa Bay.

"I just took it upon myself to take Johnny's place," Raetano says.

Long's lawyer was happy to oblige.

ADA as a career

Todd Shulby has heard it all before. About how lawyers who file ADA lawsuits are only in it for the money. How they often sue without warning because only a lawsuit guarantees they'll get fees. How some attorneys pay illegal kickbacks to "testers" like Raetano (Shulby vehemently denies the allegation). How, in the immortal words of Orlando federal judge Gregory Presnell, "The current ADA lawsuit binge is essentially driven by economics - that is, the economics of attorneys' fees."

Nonsense, says Shulby, a Davie lawyer who has filed more than 800 ADA lawsuits in Florida since 1995 and bills as much as $300 per hour.

Congress had the chance to set aside money for enforcement when it created the ADA law in 1990. Instead, lawmakers decided to let individuals force compliance through lawsuits, and let the losing defendants pay their legal fees. In this light, plaintiffs like Raetano and attorneys like Shulby are civil rights activists.

"When one weighs the overall public benefit," Shulby wrote in the Morton Plant case, "it is clear that (ADA) litigation should be encouraged."

Even disability advocates admit mixed feelings about ADA lawsuits, however.

"Here we are, it's 2008, we've had 18 years since the ADA was enacted, and if businesses haven't done anything to comply, they leave themselves open," said Jack Humburg, an ADA expert with the nonprofit Boley Centers in St. Petersburg, which designs compliance plans for property owners.

"On the other hand, when businesses get lawsuits in the mail unannounced ... it doesn't win converts to disability compliance."

Squeaky wheel

There's no secret to finding ADA violators, Raetano says. If he goes out to shop, eat or visit a friend but encounters obstacles along the way, he surveys the property, drafts a report and sends it to Shulby's expert witness, who recommends whether or not to sue. That is the extent of Raetano's involvement.

He demands only one thing: that all settlements include a promise to make the recommended renovations, a deadline for making them and a means for enforcing the deal. Some of Johnny Long's defendants still haven't complied.

Back at the Heritage Oaks office complex in Dunedin, Raetano is explaining the finer points of the ADA's parking rules when a young SUV driver swerves into the handicapped space beside him. There is no permit on the woman's rear-view mirror, and, embarrassed perhaps, she remains in the truck. Raetano doesn't so much as roll an eye.

"What I'm asking is not unreasonable," he says.

Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

About the federal Americans with Disabilities Act

Purpose: ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to jobs, public accommodations and government services.

History: President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990. It went into effect in 1992.

Effect on property owners: Title III of the law requires hotels, restaurants, office buildings, factories and many other property types to be accessible to disabled people. Focuses on parking, entryways and bathrooms. Standards may be relaxed for older properties.

Enforcement: the U.S. Department of Justice accepts complaints but responds slowly if at all. Disabled people also may file a federal lawsuit. Settlements are common, and usually call for defendants to promise fixes and pay the plaintiff's legal fees.

State law: Florida's rules, spelled out in Chapter 11 of the Florida Building Code, are stricter than the ADA's.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice; Caring & Sharing Center for Independent Living Inc. of Largo.

Help for commercial property owners

If you want to make sure you comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and make your property accessible to the disabled, there are several options:

1. For specific questions, contact your city or county building department. Staff there should be able to answer basic questions such as the correct height for a counter or the required width of a handicapped-accessible bathroom stall.

2. Get copies of the federal government's ADA manuals at www.dbtac.vcu.edu/adaportal and figure things out for yourself. Be warned: the materials are very technical.

3. Hire an ADA accessibility consultant to inspect the property and prepare a report on its deficiencies and recommended solutions. This is not a perfect solution; consultants can be costly (some charge over $100 an hour), hard to find (there is no central database) and varying expertise (there is no specific certification or degree for ADA consultants). The not-for-profit Southeast DBTAC (1-800-949-4232) has a partial list of local consultants. Your local "independent living center" also may have an expert for hire; a list centers is available at www.virtualcil.net/cils/query-iandr.php?state=fl.

[Last modified February 8, 2008, 21:29:31]


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