It's a federal law with good intentions. Every public business must provide disabled customers equal access. Those that don't can be sued without warning.
But in Shreveport, critics say the law is making it easy to file frivolous lawsuits. KTBS-3 Investigates tracked down a local wheelchair bound man and his attorney, who have sued a string of businesses and government bodies over things like tight door handles and ramps off a few inches -- and they're winning.
After viewing the lawsuits, KTBS-3 investigators decided to visually inspect the local businesses being sued. To the undiscerning eye, the cracks in some of their streets looked like signs of normal wear and tear, but to the wheelchair-bound man -- who refused to talk to KTBS-3 at his home -- the uneven concrete is grounds to sue.
And James Bledsoe has sued a lot - 17 times in the past year and a half, and over a lot more than just uneven concrete.
James Bledsoe's attorney, Andrew Bizer of New Orleans, disagrees.
"Seventeen isn't a lot. In fact, the reason why is Mr. Bledsoe encounters discrimination and he files suit," said Bizer. "If there is a cap on how much discrimination he can encounter, then there should be a cap on how much he can enforce his rights!"
Bledsoe's attorney has a history of filing suits for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal court records show 161 suits in the New Orleans area since 2011 and 42 in Baton Rouge in the past three years.
Suit after suit is on behalf of the same person, Bledsoe, who is a paraplegic and missing part of one leg. A pattern is now emerging in Shreveport.
KTBS-3 Investigates asked Bizer if his client is randomly driving by these businesses, finds something wrong and sues. Bizer says no.
"Mr. Bledsoe is a human being who lives in the city of Shreveport. He goes about his business like you and I would," said Bizer. "When he goes about his daily life and finds facilities that don't have the right ramps, or right parking or right restrooms, he tells me about it. I check it out and we file suit and we're successful," added Bizer.
Six of the 17 lawsuits Bledsoe has filed have settled and more are being negotiated. The Americans with Disabilities Act has thousands of technical regulations and most of the businesses that have been sued are in violation, even if they don't know it. Most of the suits in Shreveport start with the same quote from President George H.W. Bush, who signed the disabilities act into law, stating:
"I know lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say: Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down. God bless you all."
- President George H.W. Bush, July 26, 1990
The Shreveport lawsuits also request attorney's fees and fixing the violations. Critics say Bledsoe is just a pawn: unless he's suing a government agency, he gets nothing from those he's suing.
KTBS-3 Investigates asked Bizer how much he and Bledsoe have been awarded in damages and attorney's fees. Bizer claims he is unable to share the info due to confidentiality agreements.
"All of my attorney's fees are subject to these confidentiality agreements and the same thing for Mr. Bledsoe," said Bizer.
The lawsuits have run from hamburger restaurants to government and big businesses in Shreveport. In an Uptown shopping center, one business was sued over the location of handicapped parking spaces, a ramp, a door handle and mailbox accessibility.
Another along King's Highway had problems with ramps and restroom facilities. Podnuh's, a popular BBQ eatery, was sued over the location of its handicapped parking spaces and a bench blocking part of a walkway.
But the city of Shreveport is a big target. It's been sued three times over handicap facilities at parks, the bus system and sidewalks. One has been settled. The city has to disclose how much it pays.
In additional to attorney's fees and the costs of compliance, KTBS-3 Investigates found that Bledsoe was paid approximately $2,000.
Bizer says the extent of ADA non-compliance in Shreveport is shocking.
"The streets and the sidewalks are so poor he is forced to ride in the street, which is a dangerous thing to do," said Bizer. "Furthermore, it is illegal to ride in the street and he is harassed by the police for riding in the street when that is the only way he can get around."
Bizer disputes critics who say it's a money grab more than trying to fix problems.
"The only way to enforce the ADA is thru civil litigation," added Bizer.
People who defend these type of suits, like Shreveport-based attorney Price Barker, say civil litigation is real and local businesses should take corrective steps before they are targeted.
"My personal opinion is that one of the primary motives of one of these lawsuits is to get attorney's fees and expert witness fees," said Barker. "But as a result of these lawsuits, businesses are making changes and making their facilities more accessible to the disabled."
Bizer's law firm is also representing a Bossier City man who's deaf. Two lawsuits have been filed on his behalf. One is against the police department for not providing a sign language interpreter when he meets with an officer about his sex offender registration. The other is over better hearing aids at a medical facility.
And these two men don't plan to go away. In the lawsuits, they say they'll be coming back as "ADA testers."