ATLANTA - Hundreds of lawsuits accusing various business owners of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have kicked up a legal storm across the country.
Two Georgia business owners are fighting back. They have filed a racketeering lawsuit against the Georgia attorney behind many of those ADA suits, accusing him of running a criminal enterprise.
The lawyer, Craig Ehrlich, denies the accusations in court records and stated he's only helping disabled clients make the city more accessible.
Two years ago we investigated how a small group of lawyers and disabled patients field hundreds of ADA lawsuits in federal court here in Georgia. Critics were questioning whether they were in it for the quick settlement buck, or a sincere desire to make the city more accessible.
Now, a surprising legal battle has rekindled the debate.
Austell businessman Tony Abufarha greets his customers in with a smile, and makes sure his grab and go snacks are perfectly arranged. So, it was a shock to Tony when Yvonne Brown sued him.
Yvonne often chronicles her life in a wheelchair with her service dog on her YouTube page. She has also filed 40 Americans with Disabilities or ADA lawsuits in Georgia according to court dockets. Including her suit against Tony Abufarha.
“I know her name, but I don't know how she looks like. Yeah, I don't know who it is,” said Abufarha.
Her suit alleged a shopping list of ADA violations from the parking lot to the bathroom. Tony hired a lawyer - Hassan Elkhalil - who negotiated a settlement.
“Maybe there are violations and we need to attend to these violations, so that’s what we did,” said Elkhalil.
Tony agreed to modify his store to make it more accessible and make the lawsuit go away. He built a new disabled parking spot outside and redid the bathroom.
“Changed the toilet. Made it lower. Rails where they can hold on or sit. This is to pull yourself up,” said Abufarha.
Tony says it cost him more than $10,000 plus his lawyer's fees. In the settlement, he also paid Yvonne Brown's attorney's fees - $4250 to Craig Ehrlich.
(You felt like a victim?) “I did. Yes. I wish I had just heads up, a warning perhaps. It would have worked different,” said Abufarha.
But, Craig Ehrlich seems to prefer lawsuits to warnings. His law firm's web page says: "Our Goal is Universal Accessibility”
According to Federal court dockets, Ehrlich has filed some 459 ADA lawsuits in Georgia, most of them in the past two years.
“After the incident, we did not see anyone come in,” said Elkhalil.
Hassan Elkhalil says Yvonne Brown never returned to check the changes his client made. Three months later Craig Ehrlich sued another one of Hassan's small business clients.
This time it was the owner of this Acworth Kwik E Mart. Craig Ehrlich’s client was a disabled man. The case was settled quickly. End of story? For attorney Hassan Elkhalil, it was just the beginning.
“We decided we wanted to stand up; we wanted to fight back,” said Elkhalil.
Hassan had seen enough and felt it was time to tackle the ADA lawsuits head-on.
Elkhalil filed a racketeering lawsuit in federal court accusing attorney Craig Ehrlich and 8 disabled clients of running a criminal enterprise - targeting small, largely minority-owned businesses with one motive: "to make money for all involved ..at the expense of Georgia businesses and citizens."
“It's a scam,” says Elkhalil.
Attorney Craig Ehrlich wouldn't talk to us on camera. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against him, Ehrlich's lawyer argued Ehrlich’s ADA lawsuits "are entirely legitimate and proper" and the complaint is "entirely without merit."
Ehrlich’s lawyer added: "Enforcing the ADA by bringing citizen suits is expressly authorized by Congress and approved by the courts."
“It's a novel approach to an issue that people have been upset about, smaller business being sued in this space,” says Wendy Hensel.
Attorney Wendy Hensel is an expert on ADA law. Now, she is Provost at Georgia State University. She says the real problem is when Congress passed the ADA law, it expected owners to make their businesses more accessible. Unfortunately, she says, - all too often - it hasn't happened. That means a small set of lawyers have found fertile ground for ADA lawsuits.
“The vast majority of businesses recognize that it is far cheaper to roll the dice, not comply and wait for that complaint to come in, before being compliant,” said Hensel.
“I would like to change the law. I don't want law firms to file mass lawsuits….to abuse more businesses. I want to stop that,” said Elkhalil.
The lawsuit shows signs of a bitter battle. One plaintiff has already dropped out of the case, stating the complaint made false allegations. Elkhalil replied the plaintiff willingly joined the suit.
Craig Ehrlich has asked the court to dismiss the case, and wants Elkhalil sanctioned – claiming he acted in bad faith. Elkhalil has denied his case is frivolous and the fight continues in federal court.