Jacksonville Area Hotels face Disability Discrimination Suits

discrimination choicesJacksonville Area Hotels face Disability Discrimination Suits

A perennial plaintiff has filed about two dozen lawsuits against local hotels, accusing them of violating the Americans with Disability Act.

The hotels — most located in Duval County, with six in Nassau and one in Flagler — failed to provide things such as sufficient disabled parking spots and means of entry for people with disabilities, said Howard Cohan, who filed the lawsuits.

Among those sued are the Crown Plaza Jacksonville Riverfront, the Four Points by Sheraton Beachfront and two Courtyard by Marriott hotels.

The 24 cases, all filed Jan. 21, are a fraction of the ADA-related lawsuits Cohan has been involved with in recent years.

Since November 2013, Cohan has filed more than 600 ADA related disability suits, according to federal court records. In the days since filing the Jacksonville-area cases, Cohan has filed nine more, mostly against hotels based in South Florida.

In his disability lawsuits, Cohan said he has spinal stenosis, a disability under the ADA. He requires the use of a properly labeled van-disabled parking space, a properly labeled and signed handicap parking space, a lift for pool and Jacuzzi accessibility and the use of a continuous path of travel, the suit says.

“Plaintiff personally visited the Premises, but was denied full and equal access and full and equal enjoyment of the facilities, services, goods and amenities within the Premises, even though he would be classified as a “bona fide patron,” the suits say.

Apart from his personal desire to stay at the hotels, Cohan said in the suits, he acts as a “tester” to discover discrimination against the disabled.

Over the past year, Cohan has been represented in most of his cases by Mark D. Cohen, an attorney based in Hollywood, Florida. For the flurry of Northeast Florida cases, the attorney of record is Gregory Sconzo of Kaplan & Sconzo P.A. in Palm Beach Gardens.

In a brief phone conversation this week, Sconzo said he’d have to check with Cohan before commenting. “In the past he has preferred not to give a statement,” the attorney said.

Many of the Northeast Florida hotels also declined to comment, but Bill Andrews, the GrayRobinson P.A. attorney representing several of the defendants, said the owners of the hotels receiving the letters were distraught — in part because they’d received no notice of violation before being sued.

“In virtually ever single case, my clients have said said if they just let me know, I’d fix it,” said Andrews, who has represented clients sued by Cohan over the past several years.

That’s the outcome the disability lawsuits are designed to produce, said Sconzo, speaking generally about such cases. “There are plenty of hotels that are now fully compliant because of lawsuits like this that wouldn’t be otherwise,” he said.

The ADA is designed to let individuals sue as an alternative to having government inspectors travel around and check places out. Individuals can’t collect damages, but if they win, their attorney’s fees and costs have to be paid by the defendants.

That leaves an offending property owners having to pick up both sides of the legal bill as well as pay for whatever fixes have to be made.

Businesses would make the necessary changes if they received a pre-lawsuit letter, Andrews said — as demonstrated by the alacrity with which they jump to comply once the disability suit is filed.

“They’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do when it’s brought to their attention,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean all of the accusations are correct, some defendants say.

Several of the hotels sued are in historic houses on Amelia Island, and landmarked places are exempt from having to make large-scale changes, Andrews said.

Also, some defendants say Cohan didn’t actually inspect their operations.

For example, Cohan said he visited the hotels on Sept. 1 — Labor Day — when at least one bed-and-breakfast on Amelia Island said it wasn’t open.

If that’s so, Andrews said, “it provides us a pretty good defense.”

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Article By: Timothy Gibbons, visit: www.bizjournals.com