By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"His concern... is that a lot of people are reluctant to speak for themselves and are intimidated by lawsuits or are intimidated by owners," says fellow activist Brennan. Another Garon ally, Broward County Commissioner Lori Nance Parrish, agrees. "John Garon puts his heart and soul into making things better for the disabled community," Parrish says. "He's sort of my unofficial adviser on disabled issues."
Ironically, Parrish came to know Garon because his first ADA lawsuit, filed in April 1996, was against Broward County itself. He sued because he couldn't park his van at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, which the county owns. To park in the garages, motorists must take a ticket from a machine. All vans were required to park on the top floor. Garon couldn't reach out and grasp the ticket. "There was no way that a quadriplegic, driving by themselves, could get into the airport parking," he says. And the area where he was required to park his van had no access aisles -- the barred blue strips next to disabled parking spots where Garon has to let down his wheelchair lift.
The case was sent to mediation and settled; the county fixed the problems. "I just feel bad that they even had to sue us," Parrish says. "When the ADA law was passed, we were all aware that we had to make changes. But sometimes, the government doesn't move fast enough, so they file suit -- and that gets everyone's attention."
In November 1997, Parrish got him appointed to the county Advisory Board for Individuals with Disabilities, on which he served for three and a half years. He stopped going to meetings eight months ago, he says, because he felt the county was again ignoring them. He also couldn't reach the ticket to get into the county parking garage for meetings, he says, despite suing the county over the same thing five years before.
Garon filed eight early ADA lawsuits on his own, but in 1997, he joined with two other disabled activists, Vatrice Rivera and Keisha Brown, both of Fort Lauderdale, to form the Alliance for ADA Compliance. Most of his subsequent suits have been filed under that name. "We are the police, essentially, for the Americans with Disabilities Act," he says.
The list of places that Garon has sued reads like a Who's Who of South Florida businesses: Publix, Swifty Coin Laundry, McDonald's of Florida, Wal-Mart, and dozens of hotels. The settlement agreements in practically all of those suits are confidential, barring either party from discussing the terms. The secrecy surrounding them, however, has not stopped ugly rumors from circulating that Garon and other disabled activists are merely extorting legal fees and expert-witness fees rather than trying to fix any problems.
Thomas Waits, president of the Florida Hotel & Motel Association, says he knows that some activists have presented hoteliers with lists of "perceived violations," suggested that the owners hire specific consultants, and threatened lawsuits if they didn't. "That's what raised suspicion," Waits says. "I don't know that I could prove that. When there is a multitude of suits of this sort, it does raise some questions as to the real motivation for it." Waits says he has heard of Garon but doesn't know him and doesn't associate him with any shady dealings.
Garon himself emphatically denies engaging in such tactics. The problem, he says, is that many defendants don't understand the ADA and believe their attorneys' assurances that they can win, thus running up big legal bills. "Attorneys are generally paid by the hour, so the more they fight, the more they get paid. And not only that but the more they fight, the more my attorney gets paid and my expert witness, who went out to see if my complaint is accurate." Then, knowing they'll lose if they go to trial, attorneys urge their clients to settle with Garon.
He adds that defendants often find it cheaper to pay for his attorney and expert-witness fees, promise improvements -- and then do nothing. "Many places have literally ignored [their agreements], figuring I'll never be back around," he says.
Fellow activists Brennan and Resnick, however, attribute such charges to another source: some of the lawyers Garon himself has used in the past. "Some of the attorneys he'd originally been using were in it for questionable motives and wrote stipulation agreements that weren't very good or even enforceable," Brennan says, without naming names. Resnick says Garon himself characterized some of his attorneys as "money grubbers," and Resnick agreed. But both say Garon himself had no ill intent. "As soon as there's been any question about (his attorneys') motives, he's shied away from them," Brennan says.
Garon has used 13 attorneys since 1996 but is now down to two: Todd Shulby of Fort Lauderdale and William Charouhis of Miami, both of whom he is perfectly content with, he says. He refuses to name any of the attorneys he considers subpar, since many of their cases are still in progress or awaiting enforcement. He plans to wait until the settlement time limit runs out before switching those cases to his current attorneys for enforcement action.