They call themselves Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities - AID for short.
On its website, videos show AID giving out things like a special therapeutic brace, a scooter, and a window air conditioning unit.
That’s not controversial.
But what is controversial is how AID makes money. In the past six months, AID has filed more than 1,000 cases alleging disability access violations in the parking lots of Valley businesses.
The Americans with Disability Act requires certain buildings, businesses and commercial facilities to have a certain amount of accessible parking spots, the correct space between spots, and proper signage at a specific height.
But if businesses are even slightly out of compliance -- a sign just an inch or two low – AID has sued and demanded thousands to settle the case.
AID officials claim their work is advocacy.
But businesses, lawmakers, and other advocacy groups say what they’re doing is an abuse of the system, a form of extortion, and harming the disability community.
Who is AID?
On AID’s website, the group calls itself “civil rights champions.”
AID was originally formed in January under the name Advocates for American Disabled Individuals. However, the group changed its name months later after discovering their name could be considered offensive (Here’s why ).
AID officials also said their organization is a charity. It filed for non-profit status with the IRS earlier this year and said it was approved in July.
AID has filed lawsuits under multiple entities, making the exact number of cases hard to track. However, ABC15 has found more than 1,000 lawsuits have been filed in Maricopa County since February.
For the first several months of operation, AID’s star plaintiff was a man named David Ritzenthaler.
“As disabled people we don’t have a voice,” said Ritzenthaler, during an interview at his home.
Ritzenthaler , 74, said he had hip surgery last August. He’s also a self-proclaimed minister and considers his lawsuits for AID a public service.
“I love what (they’re) doing,” he said.
Ritzenthaler has filed 530 lawsuits on behalf of AID against businesses in Maricopa County, court records show.
Has he been to all of those businesses? No.
AID’s lead attorney, Peter Strojnik, said that’s not a requirement. The ADA requires that a person with a disability only has to be informed of a violation before they can sue. Courts have allowed plaintiffs to use this legal standard to file serial lawsuits.
AID has hired people to cruise parking lots across the Valley, using a checklist to identify potential violations.
All of the lawsuits are nearly identical except for the business name and address. The complaints make general allegations, and hundreds of cases reviewed by ABC15 show that specific violations aren’t listed.
“They’re copy and paste jobs,” said attorney Lindsay Leavitt, who represents nearly 150 businesses that have been sued. “It’s just a conveyor belt of lawsuits.”
Serial ADA plaintiffs have popped in states across the country, often filing a few dozen cases and then moving on.
But AID is applying the method at an unprecedented rate, and Strojnik said they plan to file 100,000 lawsuits across the country.
AID is also trying something that legal experts said is new.
Their plaintiff, David Ritzenthaler, stopped putting his name on lawsuits in mid-May. (He said he’s now serving as a director for the group). Instead, AID is now suing on behalf of itself without a person listed as a plaintiff.
“This is so new. It’s never been done,” Strojnik said. “And we intend to see it through.”
Money or compliance?
AID believes that any violation is discrimination.
When asked if a missing van notice or a sign that’s just a few inches too low is worth a lawsuit, attorney Peter Strojnik responded, “Oh yes.”
Strojnik said AID is trying to affect a change that hasn’t occurred since the ADA was passed. But businesses that have been sued consider the lawsuits “shakedowns” and “extortion.”
Bob Curtis, who owns an auto parts and repair show in Mesa, was sued and has hired a lawyer to defend his case.
His violation? “I didn’t have a van accessible sign,” he said. For missing the small sign, Curtis said AID demanded $5,000 to settle.
“A $50 sign for $5,000,” he said. “I think its extortion.”
Business attorney Lindsay Leavitt, who is not representing Curtis, said AID appears to have a goal of reaching quick settlements.
“Oftentimes, it’s just cheaper and more cost efficient to settle a case then to prove you are right in court,” Leavitt said.
ABC15 has learned settlements often range from $3,000 to $7,000. If multiplied by hundreds – and soon to be thousands – of cases, the lawsuits add up to millions of dollars.
But AID said it’s not about money. It’s about compliance. In fact, AID officials have repeatedly accused attorneys hired by business as the ones who are “lining their pockets.” A spokesperson also criticized businesses that hired lawyers