Evidently, ruling Democrats at the legislature feel they haven’t done enough to undermine the state’s business climate. You’d think lawmakers would have paused to admire their handiwork after proposing a plague of business-busting regulations this session. Yet, they now want to trigger a tidal wave of lawsuits against the business community, too. What’s next — locusts?
House Bill 23-1032 practically begs personal-injury lawyers to file discrimination suits on behalf of employees and consumers with disabilities.
Among the bill’s provisions, it enables plaintiffs who claim disability discrimination to seek damages up to $250,000 — $500,000 in some cases — for emotional distress. The bill also would let courts order monetary damages as well as compliance with the law. Of course it’s compliance that is the purported aim of laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act. After all, most businesses that are sued didn’t even realize they were out of compliance on some narrow technicality and would have been happy to address the issue promptly without litigation.
HB23-1032 also would allow suits to be filed before administrative remedies have been exhausted through the Colorado Civil Rights Division — whose purpose is in fact to head off a deluge of litigation that overwhelms court dockets. Alongside all that, the legislation would require, not just allow, courts to award attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs who prevail in court.
All of which makes it pretty clear the bill isn’t really about helping disabled employees. It’s about providing bigger paydays for the plaintiff’s bar — a perennial campaign donor to the party in power at the State Capitol.
As reported by The Sum & Substance, a business-news site started by the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, the bill’s advocates contend that raising the legal stakes on business compliance with disability laws ensures businesses don’t drag their feet fixing problems. The bill’s supporters say pursuing such litigation necessitates greater incentives for lawyers.
But as The Sum & Substance also reported, critics see the bill for what it really is — an invitation to “drive-by lawsuits.”
One attorney whose law firm defends businesses against what is already a torrent of discrimination claims, told the committee HB 1032 will make things even worse. It doesn’t even offer accused business owners the right to fix problems that have been pointed out to them before they are dragged to court.
Another attorney who represents businesses against claims under the federal disabilities act noted the toll the bill will take on small business in particular. Courtenay Patterson said out-of-state lawyers already have been filing more lawsuits against small businesses over small and inconsequential infractions of the federal act — like hanging signs for disabled parking spots five inches two low. Several restaurant owners who had been targeted by such suits turned out to testify against the bill, as well. Patterson said attorneys will seek money up front to force the business owners to settle — and will threaten them with costlier court proceedings if they don’t give in. HB 1032 will give the lawyers even more leverage to shake down businesses.
“The proposed bill is not going to increase accessibility. It isn’t going to increase compliance with the ADA. All it will do is open the floodgates for lawsuits,” Patterson said.
This giveaway to the trial lawyers’ lobby was too much even for a couple of Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, and they voted with Republicans against the bill. It survived by one vote and is now awaiting action by the full House. Let’s hope more Democrats see the light there.
Lawmakers should ensure access for the disabled — not another payday for trial lawyers.