Melissa Jaros didn't know what to think when she received an unexpected letter in the mail on Aug. 29.
A man she didn't know was threatening to sue her if she didn't send him $5,000 and make changes to the parking lot of her Streamwood business, Grooming Unleashed.
The letter, written by disabled Streamwood resident Andrew Straw, stated Jaros' business is in violation of the American with Disabilities Act and because of that, he was seeking damages and a quick fix that included curb cuts and better signage for handicapped parking.
Confused and a bit offended, Jaros threw out the letter.
Grooming Unleashed is one of more than a dozen businesses Straw sent the correspondence to a few weeks ago. His demand letters have created a stir among members of the village's business community, many of whom are suspicious of his intentions. The executive director of the Streamwood Chamber of Commerce even called police after getting the letter, worried it was a scam.
But disabled rights advocates and experts on ADA law say while Straw's approach may not win him friends, what he's doing is not illegal.
The 44-year-old Straw, a licensed attorney in Indiana and Virginia, targeted businesses in Hillbrook Square Shopping Center and Parkview Plaza, both near Streamwood and Bartlett roads.
He says Hillbrook has no handicapped parking and Parkview is lacking curb cuts and proper signage.
Straw said he is justified in sending out demand letters instead of reaching out to business owners in person, given that the ADA was passed 23 years ago and businesses have had plenty of time to comply.
He demanded $5,000 from each business owner, since, he says, an annual tax credit of that amount is available to small businesses that remove a barrier or install improved accessibility features.
"I don't have time to go around and have a polite conversation with every one of these businesses that is not compliant," Straw said. "I'm not here to be their friend. I'm here to make them compliant."
Straw was injured in a 2001 car crash he says put him in the hospital for two months and in a wheelchair for almost three months. His hip was crushed and one of his legs -- which now has a permanent rod and 17 pins -- was broken in four places.
While a hip replacement has made it much easier for him to walk, he said he still has pain shooting down his leg and is constantly tripping.
He says he wants to use his injuries to make access easier for other disabled people.
"I think Streamwood is a great sort of test area because there's so much that isn't accessible," he said.
On a recent day, Straw walked around the parking lot of the shopping center near Bartlett Road and Cypress Drive, pointing out the faded paint marking handicapped parking spaces. Straw says there should be at least six signs in the lot.
"If that's what civil rights for disabled people is -- just throwing some paint out there and saying that's good enough -- I don't know, it's not good enough to me," he said. He did not send any demand letters to the businesses in that shopping center, however.
So far, no one has sent Straw $5,000, nor has he filed a lawsuit against any of the businesses.
Straw says if he files lawsuits and they generate punitive damages, he might use the money to provide scholarships for in-state law students to study disability rights, or fund a disability rights officer at the Illinois Supreme Court.
But he said the $5,000 payments he is demanding, plus any compensatory damages he might receive, are his to use as he pleases.
Right to demand
Robin Jones is the director of the Great Lakes ADA Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago, one of 10 federally funded technical assistance centers that educate and inform entities that are responsible for ADA compliance and people who are covered by the law.
Jones said the most commonly reported ADA violations fall under Title III of the law, which requires public accommodations to be free of physical barriers to entering and using existing facilities.
She added the practice of individuals sending demand letters regarding ADA compliance is not new. In California, legislators moved to prevent predatory lawsuits against small business owners after numerous "mom and pop" businesses complained about an increase in lawsuits for ADA noncompliance.
The state's revised law doesn't let noncompliant businesses off the hook, but it requires the California state bar to track the letters and reduces statutory damages for defendants who correct violations within 30 days, among other revisions.
"It's something that is allowed," Jones said of sending demand letters. "But there are other options that individuals have that they could pursue to try to get a resolution."
Jones said while advocacy groups might not agree with Straw's behavior, they may condone it if it results in better access for everyone.
But if all that happens is a business owner sends Straw the $5,000 and doesn't fix the problem -- and Straw does not pursue it further -- it would be an abuse of the law, she said.
"What are the individual's intentions?" she said businesses often ask. "That's a really delicate issue because the reality is, the business is out of compliance."
Of the 13 letters Straw sent out, four went to vacant businesses. According to the Chamber of Commerce, two of the remaining nine businesses are also closed.
"I'm not in a hurry," Straw said of filing suits, adding that he is waiting for an ideal time to sue, such as the anniversary date of the passage of the ADA.
In the meantime, Straw has filed complaints with the Cook County state's attorney's office and the attorney general about ADA compliance in Streamwood, saying he believes that not providing handicapped parking could possibly be labeled as reckless conduct.
He said he isn't planning to send any additional demand letters at this time.
Streamwood Community Development Director John Peterson said the village checks for ADA compliance whenever a new building is built, if a new business moves into an existing facility, and if the village receives any complaints about a lack of ADA compliance.
The village will typically send out a written reminder telling the property or business owner to fix the problem. If they don't respond within a certain amount of time -- generally 10 days to two weeks -- they will be sent a second notice. If they still don't comply, then a ticket is issued with a fee of up to $750, Peterson said.
The last time every business was checked, Peterson said, was a few years ago when the fine for parking in a handicapped spot was increased to $250.
He can't remember the last time he received a complaint and said he's found businesses are usually just unaware if they are in violation.
"The owners of the property want to be in compliance. If they're not, it's because they weren't aware," he said, adding that violations often occur as a result of a parking lot being re-striped. "We certainly don't want to have any problems with access in the community."
At Grooming Unleashed, Jaros said elderly customers often beep their car horn when they arrive and she comes out to help them.
"I try to make it as easy as I can for them," she said.
Jaros says the parking lot of Parkview Plaza is not hers to maintain. According to her lease, store owners are required to maintain their own properties while the landlord is in charge of the exterior.
"If he (Straw) wants to sue anybody he has to go after the property manager," Jaros said. "The safety of our customers, of course, is our concern, but there's nothing we can do."
Jones, however, said every business has an obligation to ensure their goods and services are accessible to people with disabilities and are required by law to remove architectural barriers when it is "readily achievable."
That meaning differs for each business, she said, but if the removal is able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense, it must happen.
Streamwood Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Donna Lenhardt, who filed the police complaint against Straw, said she still disagrees with Straw's approach, but decided it would be a good idea to help businesses learn more about the ADA. A chamber seminar will be held from 8 to 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 15, at the Streamwood Police Department.
"It's the chamber's responsibility to get good information out to people," Lenhardt said. "They can learn what the facts are, what their responsibilities are -- not just the landlords' responsibilities, but the tenants' also."
While there have been great strides in ADA compliance over the last two decades, there remains much to do, Jones said.
"Overall, if you would talk to a group of people with disabilities, they would tell you that things are vastly different and improved since the ADA's inception," Jones said. "But they will be quick to remind you that even though things are better ... we still have a long way to go."