Banking on the Disabled: Serial Filer of Lawsuits Saves the Disabled... and Makes Some Bucks

"The urinal is too high," says Douglas Schapiro, a pudgy lawyer dressed casually in a red polo shirt. He's squished into the men's room of Mi Fondita Mexicana y Café in Hollywood fiddling with a measuring tape. "It has to be 17 inches from the floor. This is 24 inches."

From the proper height of pissers to the acceptable width of parking spots, Schapiro can rattle off even the most obscure requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

In legal circles, he is what's known as a "frequent filer." Since the start of this year, he has initiated nearly 100 civil lawsuits in federal court accusing companies across Broward County of violating the ADA.

All of Schapiro's suits are filed on behalf of William L. Taylor, an "advocate for the rights of the disabled [who] has made it his personal mission to enforce Title III of the ADA by personally testing facilities for compliance," according to court documents. Taylor could not be reached for comment.

In exchange for filing the lawsuits, Schapiro cleans up on attorneys' fees, which range from a few hundred bucks up to at least $4,800, records show. It's a good living, but he's not loaded. Property records show that Schapiro lives in a modest Deerfield Beach home that was recently assessed at $182,000.

"I don't seek excessive fees," Schapiro says. "We're not making stuff up here."

Over a 20-minute inspection at Mi Fondita, Shapiro points out about a dozen faults. Some are major, including the absence of disabled parking and a bathroom door that didn't open all the way. Others are minor, such as having proper signage.

Schapiro isn't breaking any laws by filing the dozens of cases, but some argue that his relentless pursuit exploits loopholes in the ADA and is a financial burden on already-struggling small businesses. Contractor fees that come after a visit from Schapiro can easily exceed $10,000.

"Congress needs to look at closing the door to serial filers by requiring pre-suit notice and providing an opportunity to remedy the alleged violation," says Ted Galatis, the attorney representing the Mexican restaurant.

Others are harsher. One business owner who had to pay $4,800 in legal fees and $10,000 in construction costs calls Schapiro a "cocksucker" with "good business sense."

But Schapiro contends that every business he sues gets "plenty of notice." Among the companies he hit this year are Wilton Discount Liquor, Flying Dragon of Hollywood, Tony the Pizza Chef, and Shawn & Nick's Courtyard Café.

"The last thing I want is to put a company out of business," Schapiro says after finishing the inspection. "It's all about if they respect the law."

 
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