The Enforcer

John Garon may be a partial quadriplegic, but he wields federal civil-rights lawsuits with consummate skill

"There should be no lawsuits in new construction, but it comes down to two mathematical possibilities: Number one, somebody's taking graft; or number two, the inspectors are not trained or are ignorant of the ADA standards," Garon says. There is, of course, a third possibility: Since fully accessible facilities are more expensive to build, businesses have a natural incentive to cut corners, taking the calculated risk that neither Garon nor his colleagues will ever get around to suing them.

Some of Garon's opponents have complained that Garon didn't give them a chance to make things right: The first they hear of any problems is when a federal subpoena arrives. By law, Garon is not obligated to inform building owners that he's about to sue. Every lawsuit Garon's ever pursued, he's won -- and that means the defendant is stuck with several thousand dollars in legal bills, both his and Garon's.

In response to this sue-first, talk-later tack, U.S. Reps. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fort Lauderdale, and Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, sponsored a bill in February 2000 requiring notification and a 90-day waiting period before ADA lawsuits could be filed; it died in committee.

Lori Parrish calls Garon her "unofficial adviser on disabled issues"
Sherri Cohen
Lori Parrish calls Garon her "unofficial adviser on disabled issues"
The bourgeois beauty of Weston's Main Street shopping district comes at the cost of tucking disabled parking in out-of-the-way corners
Sherri Cohen
The bourgeois beauty of Weston's Main Street shopping district comes at the cost of tucking disabled parking in out-of-the-way corners

Garon says he tried the friendly approach. "I wrote letters for years," he gripes. "They'd throw them in the garbage. They wrote back and told me they're not interested. I wasn't asking them for a job! Out of 150 letters, I got maybe three responses.

"The contributing factor is apathy. That's the apathy that is tearing into the United States in many different areas, and that is, "It will never happen to me.'" A sizable legal bill, Garon believes, is an effective way of waking people up.

When Garon began his compliance crusade, he had plenty of examples to follow. South Florida, being a booming urban area with a large disabled population (due to its friendly climate, flat terrain, and status as a retirement haven), had already spawned activists from the same mold in which Garon recast himself. There is Ed Resnick, the retired Miami Beach lawyer who's been involved in more than 300 ADA lawsuits against high-profile defendants such as the University of Miami, Pro Player Stadium, Carnival Cruise Lines, Burdines, and Wal-Mart. There's Fred Shotz, who now makes a living as a consultant on ADA issues for sports facilities. And there's Michael Brennan, the activist-turned-consultant whom the Miami Herald dubbed "Hell on Wheels" for his litigious fireworks. "He was always my idol and my mentor, in terms of trying to do the right thing without putting anybody out of business," Garon says of Brennan.

Those activists had found, as Garon soon learned, that the only way to force cities and business owners to ante up for the required changes was to file a federal lawsuit. For the big operators -- municipalities and major developers -- Garon sheds no tears. They should have known to build it right the first time. But he does have some sympathy for the smaller operations such as mom-and-pop stores, who trusted their architects and the government permitting agency. "I do not wish to put any defendant out of business," Garon insists. "Rather, I want to partner with the owner and come to a reasonable solution."

To that end, Garon set about learning the business of the ADA. He learned about its provisions, finding that churches, private homes, and condominiums were exempt. He learned that buildings built pre-ADA had to make "reasonable accommodation" to the needs of the disabled. He uses the example of providing access to an antique wooden bar; to avoid cutting the fine wood, a "reasonable accommodation" would be a nearby wheelchair-accessible table. New buildings and extensively renovated older ones had to meet the new building standards.

Then he made sure he could file suit; he had to have legal standing ("Something I'll never do," he jokes), meaning that he was directly affected by the issue. That was easy enough to prove. Just as easy was finding a target; the problem was choosing among so many. He usually confines his activity to Broward County. Garon doesn't "go hunting," he says; he just tries different restaurants and stores as part of a normal life. He parks in the lot, rolls up on the sidewalk, opens the door, shops in the aisles or eats at a table, and tries to use the bathrooms. If he can't do all of those things, he starts noting specific violations.

After nearly six years of lawsuits, Garon has the state and federal specifications for many items memorized: Disabled parking signs must be 78 inches above ground level; parking spots and their attached access aisles must be 17 feet wide, or 29 feet for two spaces sharing an aisle. Usually, a practiced glance is enough to tell him if the reality is close to the ideal. And close is good enough for him, he says: "I don't bother with nitpicky stuff."

The unpaid hours he spends circling in his van or wrangling with attorneys are worth the effort, he says. Activists like Garon are determined to give something back to the disabled community that has helped them in the past, he says. He can get around and communicate well, but not everyone can; and he estimates, based on national figures, that 7 to 10 percent of Broward County's population is disabled in some way. (Broward County's ADA coordinator, John Batey, extrapolating from 1990 U.S. Census figures, guesses that the county's disabled population is 6 percent, or about 95,000.)

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