Civil rights lawyers call out attorney for ADA suits against businesses on San Antonio's East Side

Jim Harrington and Geoffrey Courtney said they're focused on bringing attention to the string of lawsuits, which they describe as predatory and 'bullshit.'

click to enlarge Sunshine Bakery’s Kayla Matta says she’s looking for an attorney to help her business fight an ADA suit. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Sunshine Bakery’s Kayla Matta says she’s looking for an attorney to help her business fight an ADA suit.

A pair of Texas civil rights lawyers is accusing the attorney who sued a trio of small businesses on San Antonio's East Side over alleged Americans with Disabilities Act violations of using the court system as a "tool of oppression."

Houston-based attorney Duncan Strickland, representing a client identified as Joseph Castillo, has filed ADA suits against Teresita's Mexican Restaurant, Tank's Pizza and Sunshine Bakery — along with a dozen or so other San Antonio small businesses — as first reported by the Current.

The owners of Sunshine Bakery and Tank's said the suits are frivolous, unwarranted and could force them out of business.

Strickland also has filed lawsuits against Waco small businesses over alleged ADA violations, the two attorneys allege. In those cases, he's representing a client named Ryan Lambert.

"It's clear to me from what [Strickland's] doing with these folks that he has no heart or sense of compassion. And the people he has zeroed in on are some of the poorest people you could find," said Jim Harrington, the retired founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "The legal system has always oppressed poor people. And here you come with yet another tool of oppression."

Both Harrington and San Antonio-based attorney Geoffrey Courtney said they're focused on bringing attention to Strickland's string of lawsuits, which they describe as predatory and "bullshit."

Strickland was unavailable for comment by press time. However, in an email sent to the Current earlier this summer, he said he's "honored to represent individuals in wheelchairs to require the businesses to get into compliance with the law."

Despite his recent rash of ADA suits, Strickland's law firm specializes in property management, specifically evictions, according to its website.

Strickland isn't the first lawyer Harrington and Courtney have targeted for what they allege is abuse of the spirit of ADA compliance laws.

The pair also brought claims against former Austin lawyer Omar Rosales over what they said were 400-plus lawsuits he filed against businesses, citing ADA violations. Since those complaints, Rosales has been disqualified from practicing law in Texas, according to public records.

Proving malpractice

Harrington and Courtney said many of the ADA cases filed against small businesses amount to "drive-by lawsuits" in which the plaintiff never even patronized the businesses they claim was unable to accommodate their disability.

"We have done a lot of ADA cases, I would guess I've been involved in over 350, and you never go after a small business." Harrington said. "If you're really interested in change, you're going to go after chains, large businesses, people that can afford it and have absolutely no excuse for not being in compliance. I would look forward to the deposition of [San Antonio plaintiff] Castillo, because I really smell a rat here."

Prior to Harrington's tenure at the Texas Civil Rights Project, he was the director of the ADA National Backup Center, a joint enterprise of the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems. Courtney served as the managing attorney of the organization.

Courtney said he and Harrington don't plan to directly encourage Strickland's disbarment or get involved in the process should someone pursue that course of action. The pair didn't attempt to get Rosales disbarred either, they added.

Even so, the pair said they want to raise awareness about the ADA and to avoid seeing it used as a weapon against small businesses, especially those owned by people on the margins.

"We want businesses to look at the Americans with Disabilities Act as an opportunity to serve more individuals in our community and not as a tool that unscrupulous individuals are going to use to extort money," Courtney said.

Working together

The trio of East Side businesses owners who maintain they're being targeted by Strickland and Castillo met the morning of Tuesday, July 26 at Tank's Pizza to discuss their legal options.

They were joined by staff from the City of San Antonio's ADA office, representatives from District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez's office and members of the nonprofit San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE). 

"Everybody was in our favor and on our side. They kind of told us that it's unfortunate what's happening but that we absolutely cannot just ignore this," Sunshine Bakery owner Kayla Matta said. "We're going to have to go the legal route and find someone to represent us."

Matta also noted that the predominantly Spanish-speaking owners of Teresita's Mexican Restaurant were confused by the legal papers, which were in English. The owners were afraid that asking for translation help could land them in more legal trouble, she added.

Matta, who's already begun work to get her bakery into ADA compliance with the addition of a wheelchair ramp, said she feels more optimistic than she did when she was first served. She's also thankful that the city is now involved.

"These are all essentially the same lawsuit," Courtney said of the suits against the East Side businesses. "It's my belief that businesses should work together when facing the same problem."

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