The Wheels of Justice 

George Louie's mission is to help the disabled obtain equal access. So why the controversy?

When George Louie lost his right leg in 1996, the world shut him out. He found it impossible to do things he used to take for granted, such as eating at restaurants, going to the bank, and shopping. Almost everywhere he turned he found steps he couldn't climb, counters he couldn't reach, and aisles too narrow to navigate in a wheelchair.

When Louie complained to store managers, they often did nothing. One day he arranged to have an Oakland bank manager take his transaction outside because steps blocked the bank's doors. Louie said the manager came outside, saw him in his wheelchair, turned around and went back inside. "I've walked almost all my life," said the 55-year-old diabetic, whose leg was amputated after it became gangrenous. "But to be in a wheelchair ... people see that you're handicapped, they see you have a mobility problem, and they ignore you. The way that the disabled get treated in this country is just really dirty."

So Louie sued the bank under Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act, California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, and state health and safety codes. The ADA is a 1990 federal law that protects disabled people from discrimination; among its mandates are handicap-access standards for businesses. Louie won, and he eventually started the nonprofit organization Americans With Disabilities Advocates to finance more lawsuits.

In the past three years his nonprofit has filed more than 300 ADA lawsuits, most of them against Bay Area businesses. He has won cases against Gottschalk's department stores, Big 5 Sporting Goods, JCPenney, and Sears & Roebuck. Each of the defendants fixed the stores in violation; Sears and Big 5 modified their stores across the nation. In all of Louie's lawsuits, he has lost only once -- an amazing record that makes his organization one of the most prolific and successful plaintiffs in Northern California's US District Court.

Louie is one of a relative handful of activist plaintiffs challenging a well-known, disturbing fact in the legal world: even though federal and state handicapped access laws have been on the books for more than a decade, many businesses have failed to make their buildings accessible to the disabled. Still, despite his unparalleled success and proactive approach in forcing businesses to follow the law, Louie is controversial. Some in the disabled-rights community say his aggressive style harms their cause more than it helps. And at a time that the business lobby has pushed for changes that would require such lawsuits to be preceded by a 90-day warning, "professional plaintiffs" such as Louie are increasingly unpopular in certain circles.

Louie started Americans With Disabilities Advocates in 1999 after a defense lawyer for AMF Bowling Corp., which he sued and beat in court, gave him $50,000 and told him to "go bug someone else." Since then, the group has expanded to Seattle, New Orleans, and Las Vegas. Louie's Oakland apartment acts as the Bay Area headquarters for the nonprofit group, which is staffed by a handful of part-time volunteers. He lives off Social Security from a work-related disability and insurance from the 1993 death of his son's mother. Any money he makes from court settlements are funneled into more lawsuits, he said, and Louie explained he doesn't draw a salary for running the group."There are a lot of disabled people who get pushed around and won't do anything about it -- but I will," said Louie, who sometimes uses a prosthetic to get around, but can't get far since the plastic limb tends to blister his stump. "People call me a professional plaintiff, but I'm not in this for money," he continued. "I'm in this because people piss me off."

To illustrate his case, Louie pulls out a stack of 8-by-10 color photographs taken by an "access specialist" -- a person, often in a wheelchair, whom Louie hires to document businesses' violations. One of the photos is of the interior of a video store, where a Coke machine blocks a wheelchair-accessible aisle to the rental counter. Another shows a Dumpster blocking a handicapped parking space outside an Oakland office building.

Louie said he targets places that can afford to accommodate the disabled, but don't. For instance, Louie has sued several branches of Washington Mutual. "They have $44 billion in assets, and they couldn't install a handicapped-accessible bank counter," he explained. "Isn't that cold?"

As is clear from his unrivaled record in court, Louie's complaints are grounded in the law. But despite his success, some activists say his style is too adversarial. "Mr. Louie's approach solves nothing," said Tim Fallis, a manager at the Napa branch of Community Resources for Independence, a nonprofit disability-rights group. Fallis said a better solution is for plaintiffs to have a discussion with business owners who are non-ADA-compliant before filing suit.

Lawsuits may raise awareness of disability issues, Fallis said, but they also create a backlash against disability plaintiffs and attorneys. The disabled have an unemployment rate of 75 percent across the nation, he noted. "The negative publicity that comes from litigation makes businesses fear that they will incur some kind of liability for hiring a disabled person. ... The first thing a business owner sees when a handicapped person comes through the door is a liability." The result, he said, is efforts that restrict or diminish ADA enforcement, such as a proposed rule that would give businesses 90 days to fix their facilities before being sued.

But that approach is too soft for Louie. "They don't fix anything until you sue," he said. Louie said he does try to notify business owners, although he is not required by law to do so. First he complains to a store manager, and then he tries to reach a corporate office on the phone. After waiting 30 to 45 days, he files a lawsuit. In the overwhelming majority of cases, he said, no one ever calls him back or fixes their buildings until they are served with the lawsuit.

In 2000, two Florida congressmen and a US senator introduced bills requiring that plaintiffs give businesses 90 days' notice before filing suit; both bills are currently in congressional committees. Another 90-day notification act was introduced last year in the California legislature by Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont), but the bill went nowhere.

These proposals bother Louie and many disability lawyers. "The act has been on the books for ten years, and the California law has been on the books for more than twenty years," Louie said. "Do you want some kind of notice that if you break the law, you're going to get caught?"

Rob Carrol, who has defended some fifteen to twenty businesses that Louie has sued, said he has not had a single case where the client asked him whether he could fix the problem to avoid a suit. "That doesn't mean George didn't tell them ... but I don't believe that suing someone is the only way to get their attention. What's usually the case is that the business owners were not consulted before the lawsuit was filed. These people are equally surprised that they have to pay for the other side's attorney's fees. It's a double shock."

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