More than 500 disability lawsuits hit Georgia businesses

In a comic book world, the fight for justice seems never-ending. But in his comic book store, Brad Owens sees no justice in the fight he's tangled up in.

“To have someone that is basically extorting you, reminds me of the days back when the mob would want protection money,” says Owens. “It's the same thing.”

Brad Owens is the owner of Rock Shop Music and Comics. His fight began when he got a letter from a lawyer saying a woman named Noelle Wright encountered "architectural barriers" at his store and Rock Shop Comics was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“He emailed me the complaint and I was totally shocked,” says Owens.

The American with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. It was designed to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and guarantee they have the same opportunities as everyone else. Including access to businesses like Rock Shop. 

Brad says the letter which came from the Attorneys for Disabled Americans Group out of Alabama, and it contained a shopping list of complaints, focusing on his check-out counter claiming someone in a wheelchair couldn't use it. 

“We have disabled customers that come in all the time. My brother was in a wheelchair all of his life so I know what it is to deal with,” says Owens.

He had no idea who Noelle Wright was. Her Atlanta lawyer described her in an email as diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis and that she is “wheelchair dependent for periods of time."

We tried to track down Noelle Wright. It was a long trip. Seems she lives some 200 miles from the comic book store at the Mall of Georgia in a suburb north of Montgomery Alabama. We went to her home and she wasn't there, but her lawyer was. It turns out her lawyer is her mother.

Tracy Birdsong, is a lawyer with the Attorneys for Disabled Americans, and she didn't want us to talk to Noelle Wright, who she says is her daughter.

Brad Owens agreed to make changes in his store, lowered the counter, cleared the shelf space. He already had a tablet so anyone in a wheelchair could pay their bill anywhere in the store.   He sent an email with pictures showing the changes to the lawyer. He thought he was in good shape.

Atlanta lawyer, Alex Mitchell's response was the pictures don't include measurements, and there appears to be merchandise on the desk, and Mitchell stated he would "like to extend an (settlement) offer of $5,500"

“Oh, it hurts,” says Owens. “Honestly, I don't have it spend I mean if I were to pay that I'd have to take out for my son's college fund but I'm not going to.”

Our investigation found attorney Tracy Birdsong's law firm has filed 84 ADA lawsuits across the Southeast including 8 in Georgia. But that pales in comparison to other lawyers. We found 532 ADA access lawsuits have been filed in Georgia in the last 5 years - most of them by a handful of attorneys and plaintiffs.

Many of those suits filed against small business owners, like Jimmy Veeranarong.

He has cooked and served seafood on Cheshire Bridge for 32 years.  Tommy Futch sued this iconic Atlanta restaurant for ADA violations, focusing on his bathrooms.  One of 90 ADA lawsuits Futch has filed. There was no complaint. No warning. Just a federal lawsuit.

Veeranarong says Futch, who was in a wheelchair, was not a regular and came in one time.

Veeranarong’s lawyer argued the building was so old, it was exempt from ADA laws, but then he told Jimmy and his landlord it would be less expensive to fix the problems and pay the other lawyers.

He did. He added a ramp for anyone approaching the business on a wheelchair or walker from the street and built that new bathroom.

“I'm happy in a way,” he said. “Really, it makes us feel good. we do not do anything the law required us to do.”

Veeranarong had to remove three tables to build a new wall to a new bathroom. His cost: $20,000 plus his lawyer's fees and some $5000 to pay the fees for the lawyer who sued him.

“They are not here for the purpose to help the restaurant. They are just here to make the money.”

Mark Johnson is a disability advocate. He has had to navigate his way through life in a wheelchair for 42 years. He says it is sad we are still fighting over access 27 years after the ADA law was passed. He says many ADA access lawsuits often identify real access problems. But, he doesn't like the trend that is sweeping the country of lawyers flooding the court with lawsuits, mostly against small business who settle rather than fight.

He is worried the lawsuits will ultimately hurt the people they are supposedly trying to protect.

I asked him what was the real motive behind these lawsuits.  “All I can figure out is money. It's money.”

We tried to talk to several ADA attorneys and plaintiffs who file all these suits. Not one would talk to us on camera.

Craig Ehrlich, the lawyer in the Red Snapper case, told us on the phone he considers some violations dangerous to the disabled. He feels like he's doing a public service and so does his clients.

But, he didn't want his client, Tommy Futch, to make that case in an on-camera interview.