PHOENIX - A new self-proclaimed advocacy group -- that’s filed more than 1,000 disability-access lawsuits across the Valley – is using a controversial legal strategy that’s raised a lot of questions from businesses, community leaders, and attorneys.
A three-month ABC15 investigation found not all of the group’s answers add up – literally.
The group is called Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities (AID) and was founded in January.
ABC15 has found discrepancies in several of AID’s statements, including the number of lawsuits filed by its lead plaintiff, the type of businesses it sued, and where the settlement money has gone.
How many lawsuits?
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.
During the first several months of operation, AID’s star plaintiff was a man named David Ritzenthaler.
ABC15 interviewed Ritzenthaler in June.
A reporter asked him the following question: “Do you know how many lawsuits you’ve been involved with - how many your name's been put on?” Ritzenthaler answered, “I believe about 160.”
It wasn’t 160.
It was 530 – all of them filed in a three-month period from mid-February to mid-May. In fact, Ritzenthaler signed and attested to every one of the lawsuits under the penalty of perjury, court records show.
When presented with the true number of lawsuits, Ritzenthaler said he was estimating.
“I think there is 160 that I have become informed of and taken the time to evaluate,” he said.
Ritzenthaler and his attorneys said he has not visited most of the businesses he’s sued. 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.
Who’s getting sued?
AID’s lead attorney, Peter Strojnik, defends the group’s practices and said any criticism is unwarranted.
He said they sue “lawbreakers,” who have been violating ADA laws since it was passed 26 years ago. Strojnik called AID’s methods good, proper and ethical.
To prove his point, Strojnik repeatedly said AID doesn’t sue mom-and-pop businesses. But there are many businesses owners who said that’s untrue.
“That’s a total false statement,” said Lesa Crisman.
Crisman runs a small children’s clothing and accessory store with the help of her own mother, who has a disability, she said.
Crisman said she knows of a handful of other mom-and-pop businesses that have been sued down her street. She said she only found out a lawsuit had been filed when a process-server walked into her store and dropped it off at her front desk.
Stretched for cash, Crisman decided to make her own stencil and repaint her disabled access space herself. She also fixed other issues involving the parking signs in her lot.
She doesn’t know how she’ll pay the several-thousand dollar settlement AID has demanded.
“I don’t have the money,” Crisman said. “A lot of (us) are just scraping by.”
ABC15 challenged Strojnik about his claim that AID didn’t sue mom-and-pop businesses. During the interview, a reporter and the attorney had the following exchange:
Reporter: “You are suing mom and pop shops.” Strojnik: “Well let me talk about, uh, no I’m not suing mom and pop shops.” Reporter: “I’ve seen the cases.” Strojnik: “Timeout.” Reporter: “You certainly are.” Strojnik: “Timeout, counselor.”
ABC15 has learned settlements often range from $3,000 to $7,000. Some businesses said settlement demands have reached $15,000.
Where’s the settlement money going?
Under ADA law, plaintiffs typically aren’t allowed to collect damages and are only awarded money to cover attorney fees.
AID attorney Peter Strojnik told ABC15 he doesn’t take any settlement money from the cases – not for fees, filing costs, anything.
“See how many? Zero,” said Strojnik, while forming a circle with his fingers.
Strojnik said he donates all of his time and money to AID and denied that he gets any other compensation in any other way.
At first, his client, David Ritzenthaler, told us he doesn’t get anything either. “I get not a cent,” he said. But that’s something that directly contradicted what his attorney told ABC15.
Strojnik said he paid Ritzenthaler either $75 or $100 a case. ABC15 questioned Ritzenthaler about the discrepancy during an interview.
Reporter: “You don’t get any money for this?” Ritzenthaler: “I get not a cent.” Reporter: “How come your lawyer says he gives you money?” Ritzenthaler: “They do not give me money.” Reporter: “So does he not know what’s going on?” Ritzenthaler: “I don’t know. You’d have to ask him that.” Reporter: “I did. He said that he gives you about $75 to $100 a case. Is that true?” Ritzenthaler: “No. Because when that was a decision that they made, after I was already volunteering, I said I don’t want any money for it. So I designated a 501(c)3. Like I said, I’m in the business of helping people, I have never received any money.” Reporter: “What’s that 501(c)3?” Ritzenthaler: “That’s Total Life Ministries. And that’s where it’s going.” Reporter: “So why didn’t you tell me that’s where it was going before?” Ritzenthaler: “Because I didn’t know how technical of questions you were going to ask me.”
A 501(c)3 organization is a tax-exempt non-profit entity that must make financial information available to the public upon request.
Ritzenthaler, a self-appointed minister, is president and CEO of Total Life Ministries, which was created more than a decade ago. After the interview, he did not respond to messages sent to the email address for Total Life Ministries seeking current tax records. But ABC15 obtained a copy of the non-profit’s 2014 tax forms.
The records show Ritzenthaler can pay himself the money from Total Life Ministries and has paid himself a salary in the past. In 2014, he paid himself $36,000 in “reportable compensation” and $66,000 in “other compensation.”
When a reporter asked Ritzenthaler about the non-profit and the ability to pay himself, he responded by saying, “You have things a little screwed up.”
More questions about AID’s plaintiff
When ABC15 first arrived at Ritzenthaler’s home to interview him about AID’s lawsuits, he said he couldn’t get up to greet the crew.
It’s something he repeated during the interview.
“Obviously, I didn’t get up to greet you,” said Ritzenthaler, with a cane positioned at his side. “It’s not easy getting up and out of my chair.”
Ritzenthaler said he had a hip surgery in August 2015. When asked how he gets around, he said he “hopes it’s with a cane.” On bad days, he’s “in a wheelchair.”
ABC15 went undercover four times – over a two-month period -- and never witnessed Ritzenthaler use a cane or a wheelchair, including the day of the sit-down interview when he said he wouldn’t get up to greet the news crew.
A reporter caught up with Ritzenthaler walking to his SUV a few weeks after the sit-down interview. Ritzenthaler was asked how long he’s been walking without a cane.
“When I get a chance, if it’s a few feet,” said Ritzenthaler. He then said he carries a cane in the backseat of his vehicle, but not that day.
Even though he was parked in a disabled access spot, Ritizenthaler didn’t appear to have a disability placard or disability license plate. In fact, it appeared he didn’t have any license plate on the vehicle.
Ritzenthaler and his attorneys said he is physically disabled under the law. Questions about his disability are “morally repugnant.”