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George Louie wants California safe for the disabled, and he wants it now
By Joy Lanzendorfer
George Louie is on a mission. Step by step, this Oakland disabled man is making the world (or at least California) accessible to the disabled. Targeting missing railings, nonfunctioning elevators, and incompatible restrooms, Louie wields the Americans with Disabilities Act like a sword, slicing through businesses with ease.
And Louie's war is getting hard to ignore. He's filed literally hundreds of lawsuits against Bay Area businesses for ADA violations. He's nipped at the heels of powerful local entities, from wealthy wineries to major chains to disability rights lawyer Paul Rein, known for suing Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch Hotel in Carmel over disability accommodations.
No business is immune. Louie has targeted everything from "just about every bank in California," according to Louie, to major chains such as Blockbusters and McDonald's, and small businesses like local offices and restaurants. His lawsuits have stretched throughout the Bay Area, into Sacramento, San Joaquin County, and as far north as Mendocino County. In fact, he has set up his own nonprofit, Americans with Disabilities Advocates, with Louie as the executive director, to manage the lawsuits.
Louie is now taking aim at the wine country. In the past two years, he has filed suits against many wineries, including Louis M. Martini, Kendall-Jackson Wine Center, Fetzer Vineyards, Beringer Blass Wine Estates, Charles Krug, Rutherford Hill, Silver Oak Cellars, ZD Wines, and Mondavi and Sons.
But Louie's brand of advocacy has left many questioning his motives. If he truly wants to help the disabled, some say, why not issue businesses a warning and give them time to comply before going straight to the checkbook? Does this man want to ensure equal rights for everyone, or is he misusing the law for his own reasons?
Americans with Disabilities Advocates is run out of Louie's Oakland apartment. The room is cluttered with boxes, and stacks of files are scattered about the room. In each file is a new case being assembled against an offending business. The dining room table is covered with unopened bottles of wine, which Louie, who doesn't drink, is required to buy before he can file a suit against a winery.
Aside from the wine, other food is scattered about the room: a watermelon is on the couch; a flat of nectarines is balanced on top of the filing cabinet; two giant freezers sit on the patio; and one of the living room cupboards is broken, and cans and boxes of food have spilled out on the floor. Louie explains that the food is a reward for law students and other volunteers who help his nonprofit.
"We don't pay them a salary," he says, "but there's a catch: I'm a great cook."
Louie himself sits in a wheelchair. One leg of his jeans hangs down empty. His leg was amputated in 1996 from diabetes-related gangrene.
"There was a blister on my toe, and I didn't think nothing of it," he says. "Six weeks later my leg was amputated below the knee."
Though he owns a prosthesis, he says it is difficult to walk on, often causing sores that hurt for weeks. He pulls out the prosthesis and demonstrates how difficult it is to put on.
Americans with Disabilities Advocates became effective as a nonprofit in February 2000, but its conception began in 1998 when the Bank of Canton in Oakland snubbed Louie. The bank had six steps leading up to it, which barred Louie from entering in his wheelchair. He called the bank manager on the phone, asking him to come outside to help him open a direct deposit account.
According to Louie, the bank manager came out, took one look at Louie, turned around, and went back inside the bank. Louie contacted a lawyer and filed a discrimination suit against the bank, which he won. Several other suits soon followed. Since then, he says his organization has grown to 17 lawyers around the country, and he has established additional offices in Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Seattle.
Few of the cases have gone to trial, with most businesses opting to settle out of court. And while some businesses may be trying to avoid the high cost of trial, the main reason for the settlements is that Louie's accusations are true. Many of the businesses are out of compliance, often lacking wheelchair ramps, proper paths of travel, or signage. And Louie has the pictures to prove it.
"Oh, look how nice this place is!" he says sarcastically, flipping through his files, each one a case against a winery complete with pictures of the violations. "The tasting room is downstairs six steps, and there's no ramp. In this one, there's no handicapped parking there at all. Regulations call for a concrete, asphalt, or flat surface that's not broken, so you can push your wheelchair easily. Look at the gravel in that parking lot! It's hard to push your chair through that."
In most cases, the businesses in question are surprised that they are out of compliance, according to Rob Carrol, attorney at the San Francisco law office of Littler Mendelson, who has represented more than 25 defendants against Louie.
"I have not yet had a client who couldn't be knocked over with a feather by Louie's accusations," he says. "Most of them truly thought they were in compliance. It certainly wasn't intentional. They don't want to alienate their customers; they want their business."
Businesses often believe they are compliant with the ADA because they rely on building inspectors or architects, who are supposed to check for violations. And disability law can be quite technical. For a bathroom alone, 95 things must be compliant, and failure on any one point puts the business at risk for lawsuits.
Compliance can also vary depending on when the building was built. The older disability law, which was put on the books in 1970, has different rules than the ADA, which was implemented in 1990. Thus, facilities built between 1970 and 1990 are subject to different rules than those built after 1990, according to Carrol.
In addition, smaller businesses simply cannot afford the cost of the settlement, driving some toward bankruptcy.
Because of this and other factors, businesses have asked Louie to give them 90 days' notice before filing a lawsuit. If Louie is really after compliance, they say, why not give them a chance to fix what's wrong before going to the courthouse?
In the last few years, legislation has been introduced on both the federal and state levels that considers altering the ADA to include the 90-day notification. Activists who fear erosion of their civil rights often oppose such proposed measures. Both federal and state legislation have failed, but the notion continues to be brought up by business groups.
Louie strongly refuses to implement the 90-day policy.
"I've said this a hundred times," he says. "If you walk into a bank and rob it, you go to a federal penitentiary for a minimum of 25 years. If you get arrested by a peace office for driving drunk, you're going to jail. Why do these businesses feel they need another 90 days when they have had a span between 32 and 12 years to comply with the law?"
And yet in the past, Louie has said that he would work with the wineries, saying in an interview that he would stop litigation "dead in its tracks" if they would send him a letter promising to have the facilities repaired within a year. When confronted with this fact, Louie says he would indeed work with some wineries, but "not with these guys who have a million dollar house on the property crying, 'Oh, I'm a mom-and-pop organization!'"
The continuous litigation and reluctance to work with the business community has led to some questions about Louie's motives.
"I believe he's trying to make money off these businesses," says Tim Fallis, a disabled activist who previously served as branch manager for Community Resources for Independence in Napa. "If he were truly after access, his primary concern would be ensuring that access is completed, not just to go in and hope to collect a settlement check."
Settlement amounts are kept private, but Louie admits that in each case, the business pays to fix the accessibility problem, pays both attorney fees, and pays the plaintiff--often listed as both Americans with Disabilities Advocates and George Louie--damages. The amount of damages in these cases is generally reported to be between $10,000 and $30,000, but Louie says he asks for much less, starting at $4,000.
Though he does not deny that he makes money from the lawsuits, Louie says it goes right back into filing more claims. And a great deal of the money is spent simply running the nonprofit, he adds. A typical claim has a $150 filing fee, plus the cost for photos, supplies, and legal fees, which all adds up after multiple cases.
IRS filings for Americans with Disabilities Advocates lists total revenues in 2001 at $124,625, with only $200 left in net assets at the end of the year. This is down from $183,000 in 2000. Legal fees were $52,058, down as well from $87,300 in 2000. The form breaks down the total revenues as coming from Gottschalks, Doctors Associates Inc., Subway restaurants, Corral West Ranchwear, G&G Retail, Pacific Sunwear, and Brobeck law offices.
Louie claims to have filed "way more" than 100 cases in 2001, but "many of them are still pending." He added that some of the damages awarded go to the plaintiff's personal income, which can include him or other disabled people who have filed claims.
Louie is listed as Americans with Disabilities Advocates' only employee. He worked 30 hours a week last year, up from 20 hours a week in 2000. He received no compensation, but had an expense account of $12,400. He now works full-time, he says, often from 6:30am until 11:30pm, seven days a week.
Louie claims that the nonprofit does not pay his living expenses. While occupancy is listed as an expense at $11,600, Louie says the amount was not for his Oakland apartment, but rather for his other offices located around the country. He points out that in most cases, the offices are no more than answering services, which is why the amount for occupancy is so low.
"It's a great deal, getting all those offices for that price," he says.
While he admits that he eats the food he buys under the nonprofit, Louie primarily lives off the life insurance policy left by his late wife for his son, and receives no social security or other aid from the government. His son lives in Sacramento with Louie's sister, and visits his dad on the weekends.
Comply or Pay Up
Louie says that rather than money, he is seeking compliance.
"If a lawyer is out to make money, he wants to take a few cases at a time to string out the fees," he says. "We're after compliance. Everything gets parlayed back and parlayed back into more lawsuits."
Other questions have been raised about Louie's investigation methods. It has been said that in the past he has violated Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which protects against unwarranted claims and allegations that have no evidentiary support, something that Louie denies.
"There has been some concern with Louie's group that in the past he has not actually visited some of the businesses," says Carrol. "He may not have included proper evidence in his files. Although his nonprofit now includes receipts and photos with every file, that may not always have been the case."
There is also talk that the California attorney general is investigating Americans with Disabilities Advocates. When asked about it, Louie first said it was a rumor started by his former lawyer Paul Rein, but later admitted receiving a letter from the attorney general, which he referred to his lawyers.
The attorney general's office says that they do not have pending investigation on Americans with Disabilities Advocates.
According to Louie, Rein contacted the attorney general after Louie filed a lawsuit against Rein alleging that his restrooms were not handicap accessible. Rein represented Louie in five cases, including his first one against the Bank of Canton. Three years later, Louie had a disagreement with his access consultant Barry Atwood over billing, and Rein intervened on Atwood's behalf, writing a letter to Louie saying Atwood was severing professional ties with Louie.
"Paul writes me this letter and I says, 'Ooh, I think I'll sue him,'" Louie says. "It was retaliation time. But he deserved it--his bathrooms weren't wheelchair accessible."
The lawsuit never reached trial. By Louie's own admission, his lawyer recommended he put a stop to the case. According to the court filings on the case in the U.S. District Court, the case was dismissed with each side bearing their attorney fees and costs. Rein said that Louie "made up the allegations."
The lawsuit with Rein not only resulted in a call to the attorney general but also brought up questions about Louie's character. Rein's declarations attached to the lawsuit revealed that Louie is an ex-felon. He served time off and on from 1968 until 1990 in convictions that included robbery and grand theft.
Louie seems unruffled by revelations of his past, pointing out that it is, indeed, in the past. Now he is concentrating on activism.
"The past is the past," he says. "I haven't been in trouble since 1983. I have a son I have to take care of now."
As for his motivation, Louie says that it stems from his difficulty living as a disabled person. He has experienced several urination accidents due to inaccessible handicapped stalls; he often can't get into places he wants to go; and he has trouble wheeling his chair down aisles in stores. He feels like the plight of the handicapped is ignored.
"It's sinful the way people in wheelchairs are treated," he says. "I consider myself a spokesperson for the 43 million handicapped people in this country. It's not one out of 10 businesses that are out of compliance; it's 20 out of 19. We mean business. We're going to keep coming and keep coming to sue all of you until you are in compliance."
Fallis, for one, believes that if nothing else, Louie's methods are harmful for the disabled. Fallis has worked with businesses for years fixing ADA violations and has found that for the most part businesses were grateful for the input. Though that doesn't excuse noncompliance, he says, on the rare occasions he has pursued legal actions against a business for ADA violations, it has been as a last resort.
Louie's method, Fallis believes, adds to the perception of businesses that the disabled are a liability, which in turn affects the already high unemployment rate of 75 percent among them.
"If you want to change something in our society, you don't first go for a person's pocketbook," Fallis says. "It ends up hurting both the businesses and the disabled community, and destroys good will between the two groups."
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From the December 26, 2002-January 1, 2003 issue issue of the North Bay Bohemian.