United States District Judge Richard Dorr of the Western District of Missouri recently ordered plaintiff Connie Steelman (Plaintiff) to pay the defendants’ attorney’s fees for filing “groundless complaints” in 12 lawsuits against different businesses in which she alleged ADA Title III violations. Plaintiff had filed nearly 70 ADA Title III lawsuits in Missouri and Florida in fewer than two years. The 12 lawsuits had been consolidated by Judge Dorr who ordered the parties to brief the issue of Plaintiff’s standing under ADA Title III. Among other things, a plaintiff in an ADA Title III case must show that he/she has a “concrete, particularized and credible plan to return to the defendant’s place of business for use of the accommodations.”
Judge Dorr did not find Plaintiff’s facts on standing persuasive.
The court found Plaintiff’s allegation that she resides in Salem, Missouri for part of the year to be inconsistent with her residency allegations in the Florida cases. The court also noted that Plaintiff’s alleged Missouri residence was located 130 to 160 miles from the defendants’ businesses, and that “[a]s the distance between a plaintiff’s residence and a public accommodation increases, the likelihood of future harm decreases.” The court also observed that the complaints did not indicate when Plaintiff visited the defendants’ businesses, why she visited, or how many times she visited each business. In addition, the court found that Plaintiff’s allegations concerning her patronage of some of the defendants’ businesses were false. For example, in one complaint Plaintiff alleged that the property was a Kentucky Fried Chicken (it was not), and in another complaint she alleged ADA violations at the defendant’s pool and hotel, but the defendant did not own or operate a pool or hotel. In addition, the court noted that Plaintiff’s filing of nearly 70 ADA lawsuits in Florida and Missouri “detracts from Plaintiff’s assertion that she intends to return to each of [the defendants’] businesses.”
Based on these facts, Judge Dorr determined that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate an injury in fact and, thus, lacked standing to sue the defendants under ADA Title III.
After dismissing all 12 lawsuits with prejudice, the court awarded the defendants their attorney’s fees and costs based on a provision that allows for such relief when a plaintiff’s claims are “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.” In so holding, the court cited to: (1) Plaintiff’s filing of nearly 70 ADA lawsuits in 18 months; (2) her demand for monetary damages even though such damages are not available to private plaintiffs under ADA Title III; and (3) the fact that the complaints “contain misidentifications regarding the nature and propert[ies]” at issue. The court said Plaintiff’s “groundless complaints forced the businesses to incur unnecessary attorney fees” and “are the types of lawsuits from which defendants should be protected.”