Four businesses accused of breaking law on access

Suits allege bank, banquet hall, store, hotel impede disabled


June 29, 1999|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Thomas E. Creutzer of Perry Hall was attending a wedding reception at a Westminster banquet hall about a year ago when he found that he was unable to maneuver his wheelchair through the restroom doorway. Upon alerting the staff of the problem, he said, they offered to carry him to the bathroom, a remedy he dismissed as unsafe and humiliating.

The final solution: He was directed to the coat check area where, behind a curtain, he urinated into a bottle.

Creutzer has filed suit against the hall -- Martin's Westminster -- accusing it of failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. His suit is one of four announced yesterday in a coordinated effort to spotlight alleged violations of the 1990 act.

"Obviously it's extremely embarrassing and demeaning, and it's actually angering," said Dale R. Reid, an attorney for Creutzer, who was out of town yesterday. Reid also uses a wheelchair. "I've been in similar situations, not to that extent, and you almost feel like you're a nonperson."

The three other suits allege that the NationsBank on Light Street, the Clarion Hotel on Cathedral Street in Mount Vernon and the Ames Department Store in Reisterstown are not in compliance with the ADA. The four suits seek to bring the establishments into compliance but do not ask for damages.

The suits, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, were brought with the help of ACCESS Maryland, a joint project of the Maryland Disability Law Center, the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association and MCIL Resources for Independent Living.

"Our goals are to raise awareness among businesses, to bring them into compliance and to draw attention to the Americans with Disabilities Act," said Frank Pinter, executive director of MCIL Resources for Independent Living. The act, which was enacted in 1990 but took effect in January 1992, requires that businesses -- even those in buildings built before 1990 -- remove architectural barriers when it is "readily achievable" and can be carried out "without much difficulty or expense."

"We do not go after ma-and-pa businesses," Reid said. "These are corporate businesses with national exposure or systemic problems and it's difficult for them to defend on the grounds that it's not readily achievable."

Wayne Resnick, president of Martin's Inc., said yesterday that he had not heard of the incident with Creutzer until he was served with the suit.

"I think if we can comply, we will comply. [The lawsuit] doesn't anger me; I understand people's rights to have access," he said. "The fact of the matter is we don't know what our legal rights are and what his are -- we're not into legalities, we're into what's best for our customers."

A suit filed by Gloria Blumberg of Randallstown alleges that, among other things, the Ames store in Reisterstown does not have fitting rooms or restrooms that are accessible by wheelchair.

"We have not been served with the papers yet and we don't comment on pending litigation," said Ames spokeswoman Tara Malatesta in Rocky Hill, Conn. "It is Ames' intent to comply with the law in any circumstance. We will be looking into the matter when we receive a copy of the suit."

A spokeswoman for NationsBank, which a lawsuit filed by customer Jacqueline Speciner claims is not wheelchair-accessible at its Light Street location, said the company would not comment.

The Clarion suit alleges that the hotel violates the ADA in several areas, including the four steps leading to the registration desk and a night-entrance buzzer that is too high to reach from a wheelchair. Douglas Verner, general counsel for hotel owner Sunburst Hospitality Corp. in Silver Spring, said the company has spent a significant amount of money making the hotel more accessible.

"We have a number of guests at the hotel who use wheelchairs and they're accommodated, as are all our other guests," he said.

Reid said that just because people in wheelchairs can be accommodated with extra service does not mean a business is complying with the ADA. Many so-called accommodations, he said, involve humiliating practices or laborious, circuitous routes.

"I call it Houdini accessibility," he said. "The main goal [of the ADA] is to be as independent as possible. A lot of us work, lead normal lives and travel alone."

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