Disabilities

Cripple Yourself While in Prison for Child Rape, Rake in the Americans with Disabilities Act Bucks

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This from the L.A. Weekly is a couple of weeks old but only came to my attention today, an interesting story about a man in a wheelchair who has sued Los Angeles businesses nearly 1,000 times for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Some details. Jon Carpenter had been a Sunday school teacher in Utah arrested for sexual abuse of a minor in incidents involving two 8-year-old girls. Then:

the day after he was sentenced in 1989, according to jail reports, Carpenter stood atop his bunk bed and dove head-first into the concrete floor. When a guard later asked if he'd jumped intentionally, Carpenter replied, "Yes, I did, it's better than being in this place for six months."

Two days later, the state of Utah informed Judge George E. Ballif that Carpenter was a permanent quadriplegic and asked that Ballif "suspend execution of the sentence until such time as the defendant has achieved medical stability," arguing that "further incarceration or therapy in this matter would serve little purpose and in any event is not appropriate at the present time."

So the wheelchair-bound Carpenter moved to Los Angeles and starting filing Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits, nearly a thousand so far in L.A. County alone, 257 in 2012 alone.

According to David Peters, who heads Lawyers Against Lawsuit Abuse, Carpenter has sued 94 pharmacies for everything from steep ramps and failure to remodel access areas to lack of Braille or hearing-assistance technology for the blind and deaf.

Carpenter's hearing and vision, Peters says, were perfectly fine.

California is a rare state that lets people who allege an ADA violation personally win pots of cash in court — $4,000 minimum per violation, plus attorney's fees, which can reach tens of thousands of dollars.

Small businesses can be sued if the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom is too high; the customer counter is too tall; aisles are too narrow; or the grade of their wheelchair ramp is steeper than 3 percent.

But in California, defense attorney James Link says, those regulations run about 435 pages. "I had one case where the coat hook in the men's accessible stall at a P.F. Chang's was too high."….

"California is the only jurisdiction on the planet that has minimum financial damages for claims of this nature," Peters says, referring to the $4,000 floor. He estimates that 42 percent or more of the nation's ADA lawsuits are filed in California. "There are lawyers who have moved from other states just to file these lawsuits here," he says. "It's more profitable than [selling] narcotics."

According to Link, more than 3,000 ADA lawsuits were filed in L.A. County in the last three years — more than 1,700 of them by attorneys Morse Mehrban of L.A. and Mark Potter of San Diego's Center for Disability Access.

"I stand by every case," Potter says via email. "This is an important federal civil right that we are talking about."

Link scoffs. "If you're trying to clean up the stores and restaurants that you frequent, that's one thing. But if you are going to 1,000 different businesses … that's just trolling." (Mehrban, who didn't respond to the Weekly's calls, this year told ABC 7 News, "Isn't every lawsuit technically extortion?")

Technically! Carpenter's M.O.:

Carpenter and his current attorney, Potter, almost always target mini-malls or small businesses, which must create parking spots for special vans like the one he drives. They also must provide parking lot space for a wheelchair to be lowered, and special signage. Get a detail wrong — even the color of the sign — and Carpenter can sue for $4,000 and up.

"We didn't know that we needed a parking spot for a van," says Avi Hadid, owner of a mini-mall at Western Avenue and Washington Boulevard. He settled with the convicted child abuser for $10,000 — cheaper than hiring a lawyer. A friend of Hadid's, who owns a gas station, also was sued by Carpenter. "They say they're going to pay," Hadid says. "I'm sure he made so much money from that, this guy."

My 1995 Reason cover feature on the ADA's ability to gin up lawsuit money for nuisances while doing little to help those unable to walk, see, or hear (the people most in need of the costly adjustments that ADA often demands).