PDP Reps denounce alleged ADA fraud scheme
SAN JUAN – An alleged fraud scheme targeting small and midsize businesses (Pymes by its Spanish acronym) for supposed violations to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is being perpetrated by a lawyer to extort cash from local businesses was denounced Thursday by Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Rep. Manuel Natal Albelo, along with other representatives and a spokesperson for the business owners.
Natal Albelo, House Judiciary Committee minority speaker Luis Vega Ramos, and House Small and Midsize Businesses Committee minority speaker Javier Aponte Dalmau, introduced House Bill 223 to investigate the alleged scheme that has been tied to attorney José Carlos Vélez Colón.
The representative explained that the practice isn’t exclusive to Puerto Rico because there have various cases in different U.S. jurisdictions and are known as “drive-by lawsuits.”
“The practice is to send letters of out-of-court claims to these business owners, offering them the opportunity to file a lawsuit for a possible violation of the ADA Act, and the alternative is that those who do not opt for the course of action are referred to the federal court,” explained Natal Albelo while mentioning that there has been a proliferation of cases on the island, with 200 cases currently registered.
The representative used as an example that in the past 10 years in Puerto Rico there were no more than 20 annual complaints, while in 2015 there were 79 and in 2016 the number increased to 108 cases, all carried out by the aforementioned attorney.
Carilyn Marrero, spokeswoman for the group of businesspeople who reported on the practice to the legislature, explained how the scheme works.
“We received a letter, a lawsuit; we started investigating on our own because we didn’t know how many people there were. Then we saw that this lawyer asks for financial remuneration not to have to go to court. The problem arises because when litigating in that forum, it will cost you a lot more money than to settle, and that is where the blackmail comes in, because if you have ever been summoned by a lawsuit in federal court…simply hiring a lawyer can be $3,000 to start, then it continues to increase,” Marrero said.
The spokesperson also said the lawsuits seem to use the same template, even repeating the same language.
“This can’t become customary in this country, much less during the times we are going through. If you have a claim [related] to this lawyer, the first thing you should know is there is an administrative recourse to correct the problem you might have in your business. Instead of succumbing to the temptation to negotiate a federal administrative process, you should seek administrative remedies to resolve it,” Aponte Dalmau said.
Vega Ramos, meanwhile, lamented that a laudable law such as the ADA Act is used to extort local businesses.
“It appears this pattern has become a lifestyle for some lawyers and that has to be denounced. The abuse of a statute that was made to bring justice, is an injustice,” he argued.
Caribbean Business contacted the lawyer accused by the legislators and he assured that the number of complaints for ADA infringements don’t reach 200. Besides, he said it is normal to settle these cases for money.
“There have been complaints, but if they said the number is 200, then that is incorrect because the number is lower; but they have been presented, but they don’t reach that number,” Vélez Colón said.
“In general, all civil cases in state or federal court are settled. That is normal from day to day. It’s not as if money is sought and the property stays as if nothing; we have the before and after photos and many of those business owners have contractual commitments. Whoever says money has been sought from them and hasn’t had the obligation to do anything…well, they are lying,” he added.
Vélez Colón explained that the drive-by-lawsuit concept isn’t a type of extortion. The civil rights lawyer said this type of lawsuit occurs when someone claims to know about obstacles to people with disabilities at any facility, whether private or public. The course of action is to visit the place and present the situation to the person in charge so they may take action and correct the problem.
However, the attorney acknowledged that the money used to settle the case oftentimes carries fees.
“All our lawsuits are founded on facts. All the opinions of the federal court in Puerto Rico have been favorable. No case has ever been declared frivolous or unfounded. And yes, the statute provides for attorney fees to be paid, because it would be like telling attorneys defending special education children not to charge for representing them. The fees in federal court cost, in that sense we are professionals, like doctors charge for seeing a sick person, I charge for my work,” he concluded.
Veléz Colón assured he would defend his work before any forum if necessary.