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On a hot spring morning, a lone figure rode into town from the West to challenge one of the most despised gangs in the land. When he walked in to confront them, he found them hiding behind children in wheelchairs.
Last week, an AP headline blared “Clint Eastwood, Disabled Spar,” but the former mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. did not have any bones to pick with the disabled. Rather, he was on Capitol Hill to expose the greedy trial lawyers who have been abusing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and taking advantage of the handicapped in order to line their own pockets.
I’m going to trial. I’m going to take it before a judge and a jury. A lot of people can’t afford that. Somebody has to stand up for those [small-business owners]. Somebody has got to help out.
Mr. Eastwood testified before Congress on H.R. 3590, the “ADA Notification Act,” a bill introduced by Reps. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Clay Shaw (R-Fla.). This bill would require plaintiffs to give defendants notice of alleged violations and then defendants would have 90 days to comply with the ADA. Trial lawyers, such as Paul Rein who represented the plaintiff in the lawsuit against Mr. Eastwood, claim that notification is unfair to the disabled.
Mr. Eastwood emphasized in a newspaper interview prior to his testimony, “I totally support the ADA laws. I think that people not in compliance should get into compliance.” His grievance is with a section of the law that allows trial lawyers to collect attorney’s fees – even though the disabled are prohibited from collecting monetary damages. This has spawned a burgeoning practice among trial lawyers of filing sometimes questionable ADA-based lawsuits, not to make places more accessible for the disabled, but to make businesses’ bank accounts more accessible for themselves.
Three years ago, Mr. Eastwood, who is now the owner of the 32-room Mission Ranch Inn and Restaurant, was sued under the ADA because at least one bathroom and the parking lot did not comply with the law and there were not enough handicap accessible rooms. Rather than notifying hotel management of her complaint or problem and asking that it be fixed, the plaintiff immediately went to a lawyer.
According to Mr. Eastwood, the plaintiff’s lawyers have run up legal fees of $577,000 and are now asking Mr. Eastwood to pay. The plaintiff is also seeking $25,000 for herself under a separate California statute.
During his May 18, 2000 Good Morning America interview on ABC, Mr. Eastwood claimed that the plaintiff and her lawyer have teamed up before to sue others for ADA violations as well. U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) called the lack of time for a business to fall in compliance of the ADA regulation “legalized extortion.”
Mr. Rein draws the faulty analogy of race and gender to the disabled. He questions, “If a black person is not allowed to enter a business because of his race, he’s not required to send a letter. If a woman is not allowed to …, she’s not required to send a letter. Why should disabled persons be the only class of persons required to send letters?”
No one is denying anyone entrance to a business because a person is disabled. Might there be some physical impediment to a disabled person’s entrance? Yes. But disabled people are not being singled out as a class to be denied entrance anywhere as the black person or woman, in Mr. Rein’s example, are (or even as the Irish were a century ago).
Furthermore, one person’s disability may prevent him or her from entering a specific place while others’ disabilities may not hinder them. In cases where there is a physical impediment, the business owner may not even be aware of it until someone complains. Admitting someone previously denied entrance based upon race or gender does not require the hiring of a contractor.
Last week, when Mr. Eastwood walked into the House committee hearing room he was not greeted by a throng of greedy trial lawyers who are exploiting our legal system. No, the beneficiaries of the loophole that he is hoping to close dared not show their faces. Instead, the plaintiff’s bar recruited handicapped children in wheelchairs by scaring them into believing that the ADA would be weakened if this bill passed. As a result, the TV footage and newspaper photos did not show the trial lawyers in their $1,000 suits, but a young boy in a wheelchair protesting that Clint Eastwood wants to take his future away from him.
It seems that the trial lawyers may have picked on the wrong person this time, though. Mr. Eastwood said, “He [Rein] thinks I’m some stiff coming along that’s going to roll over. I’m going to trial. I’m going to take it before a judge and a jury. A lot of people can’t afford that. Somebody has to stand up for those [small-business owners]. Somebody has got to help out.”
The man who became famous as a Western hero who rode into troubled towns to clean them up may just be the man who today can help give back our legal system to decent, honest Americans with real grievances.
While the trial lawyers look at the ADA as a potential fistful of dollars, they may have just gone ahead and made Clint Eastwood’s day. The last time a regulation made him angry, he ran for mayor and won. If the same still holds true, maybe come 2002 Californians will be calling him Governor Eastwood.