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Call it wrath among the grapes. The leader of an advocacy group for the disabled has mounted a highly successful campaign to force California wineries to comply with access laws. The advocate, George Louie, bombards businesses with suits under the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. He gives them no chance to comply before suing and usually settles for about $10,000. Louie, 56, who doesn’t drink alcohol because of the diabetes that cost him his right leg, has sued more than 100 vintners with tasting rooms open to the public. The vast majority of the wineries settled by complying with the laws and paying roughly $4,000 per plaintiff-there are usually two in each complaint, including Louie-and another $2,000 in plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs. The terms of the settlements are confidential. The laws require places of public accommodation to allow disabled individuals to take full advantage of their goods and services in a nondiscriminatory manner. There are minefields of regulations that differ for accommodations built before and after the laws were passed. About 90 regulations deal with just bathrooms. There is no notice requirement before filing suit, and several attempts to amend the law to require one-championed by business but opposed by disabled-rights activists-have failed. “The Unruh Act has been around since 1971, and the ADA was passed in 1990, and it came with a two-year grace period. How much more notice do they need?” said Louie, the executive director of the Oakland, Calif.-based Americans With Disabilities Advocates. “And once I sued a dozen wineries, wouldn’t it have made sense for the others to come into compliance on their own?” Rob Carrol, an employment law attorney in the San Francisco offices of Nixon Peabody has represented more than 50 wineries and 20 other businesses that Louie has sued. He called Louie a “professional plaintiff,” whose lawyers file boilerplate suits in which sometimes the names in the body of a complaint don’t match the cover page. “Every one of my clients thought they were in compliance until they got sued,” said Carrol. “But these are strict liability statutes.” This means that getting a sign-off from county agencies or an architect does not insulate a business from getting sued, said Wendell Lee, staff attorney for the Wine Institute, the San Francisco based association of California wineries. “Our people are in the hospitality business,” he said. “They want to comply.” Lee argues for changes in the laws that would create a body that would be able to certify ADA compliance. “Then, after being certified, if you’re found not to be in compliance, there would be a notice requirement before you could get sued,” Lee said. The Foppiano Winery Louis Foppiano’s family has owned Foppiano Winery, one of those sued, since 1896. It’s a small business, producing only about 70,000 bottles a year. He built a new tasting room in 1979. Louie’s suit against him, filed in February 2002, alleged three violations-his counter was 6.5 inches too high, there was no parking for the disabled and signage and the parking lot was not level. The lot was level, Foppiano said, so that was no problem. It cost him $200 to comply by cutting down part of the counter, putting up signs and creating disabled spaces in his half-acre lot. Foppiano also had to pay $8,000 in damages to two plaintiffs, $2,250 to plaintiffs’ lawyers and $6,000 to his lawyer. “If they just come in and told me, I would have fixed it in a minute,” Foppiano said. “Louie’s a bounty hunter. It scares you. Somebody can come in and sue me because my brochure’s not in Braille.” Last year, Louie met with dozens of members of the Wine Institute and offered what some termed “Louie Insurance.” For any winery that paid him $200, Louie would agree not to sue for a year. Then he would visit the winery to see if it was in compliance. Carrol said there were no takers. Louie said he waved the fee for any winery that made inquiry and that he was merely trying to offset the expense of traveling to the winery and inspecting it, most of which he does personally with a potential co-plaintiff. It’s not about getting rich, Louie asserted. Carrol confirms that settlement checks are made out to Louie’s organization and not to Louie personally. Co-plaintiffs’ checks are made out to them. Louie turned activist in prison, organizing inmate strikes. He served six years for a 1960s conviction for passing forged checks and about three years for a failed robbery-assault on a drug dealer, he said. While he has no regrets about his past, he said, he would no longer make the same choices that got him imprisoned. Jan Garrett, executive director of the well-known Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Center for Independent Living, said Louie’s reputation within the disabled rights movement is “not great because he’s known for suing for relatively minor violations.” Garrett, a former staff attorney with Disabled Rights and Education Defense Fund, said it usually takes much longer to litigate than to negotiate. Her organization opposes notice requirements, believing that they would dilute the civil rights laws. However, she said her practice is to make a telephone call and often follow with a letter when dealing with access and compliance issues. She said she almost always achieves an accord without litigating. Louie has negotiated confidential global settlement agreements with many large corporations, such as JCPenney and Sears Roebuck, which confirmed that the suits were resolved by agreement between the parties. Louie said he is suing several doctors, dentists, hotels and other businesses on affluent Union Street in San Francisco, filing more than 90 suits in two months. Post’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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