SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Hotels across the country are being targeted for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to show online how they provide accommodations for all guests. KRQE Investigates found there are nearly a dozen New Mexico hotels being sued over it by a woman who admits she’s never even been to New Mexico.
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Hotel Saint Francis in Santa Fe, a high-end bed and breakfast in New Mexico’s capital, and luxury hotels across the state are all being sued in federal court. At least ten New Mexico hotel businesses are accused of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, for a lack of accommodations listed on third-party reservation websites.
“There’s always some eyebrow-raising when you see a bunch of cases being filed by the same parties against a bunch of different defendants alleging almost the same thing,” explained Deena Buchanan, a civil attorney with decades of experience handling employment law and business disputes. She’s not involved in these lawsuits, but offered some legal analysis of what KRQE found are nearly a dozen very similar cases filed in New Mexico federal court all listing a North Carolina resident as a plaintiff.
Court documents show Ashleigh Mackin as the listed plaintiff. Mackin claims she’s wheelchair-bound and planned to travel to the Inn of the Turquoise Bear in Santa Fe this past February.
Mackin’s complaint said she visited third-party reservation websites like Booking.com, Expedia, Hotels.com, Priceline, and Orbitz, and claims the reservation websites, “Did not provide sufficient information regarding accessibility at the hotel.” The lawsuit states each business needs to describe accessible features with enough detail online so that guests with disabilities can know if a room meets their needs before booking.
“Plaintiffs across the country have brought cases like this, and at times judges have said that they are legitimate,” explained Buchanan. “These testers they call themselves who bring these lawsuits are allowed to challenge hotels’ reservation systems.”
Out-of-state Attorney, Out-of-state Plaintiff
The ten defendants in New Mexico are all facing a lawsuit filed by the same attorney, Tristan Gillespie, out of Georgia. “What raises the red flag for me is when there’s a series of cases filed by two out-of-state people, the attorney and the client, and there’s really vague allegations about how the person really planned to use the hotel and if they really plan to stay there,” Buchanan explained.
The lawsuits state Mackin suffered ‘frustration and humiliation as the result of discriminatory conditions present at the defendant’s website.’
Imesh Vaidya is the CEO of Premier Hospitality, and runs hotels across New Mexico and Colorado. He’s not the one being sued here, but said he’s all too familiar with lawsuits he says are targeting the hospitality industry.
“Very familiar,” said Vaidya. “These are totally frivolous lawsuits. These lawsuits are not helping the actual individuals that the ADA is aiming to help. This is only enriching a very unscrupulous attorney, and unfortunately, there are several of them throughout the country.”
“It’s become a very profitable business for them,” Vaidya added. “As a small business owner, whether it’s the hospitality industry, whether it’s the retail spaces, subways, hotels, restaurants, we’ve all been affected by this.”
More than just New Mexico
KRQE Investigates found Gillespie filed lawsuits alleging ADA violations in New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Alabama, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont, and his home state in Georgia. Court records show more than 200 lawsuits are filed in courts across the country by the same attorney.
Online reviews from a website that rates attorneys call Gillespie a quote “scam lawyer” and “serial litigant,” saying he’s “destroying small business,” and claim he’s “filing lawsuits against mom and pop hotels and requesting to settle for thousands of dollars.”
KRQE News 13 called Gillespie to ask about these claims and the ten lawsuits filed in New Mexico. Gillespie referred us to his boss, Thomas Bacon, an attorney based in New York who says he’s been involved in ADA compliance lawsuits for 16 years.
“Basically, if it weren’t for these ADA plaintiffs and their attorneys, it’s my experience that no place would comply with the law,” Bacon told KRQE News 13. Bacon says failing to comply with ADA laws is discrimination, and refutes claims he and Gillespie file frivolous lawsuits.
ADA compliance on the web
“There’s nothing frivolous about them,” Bacon said, referring to the lawsuits filed in New Mexico. “In all of these cases that we filed involving online reservation services, the hotels simply failed to even indicate whether they have an accessible guest room.”
“Web accessibility is really important,” explained Travis Davis, the ADA Advisory Council Chair for the City of Albuquerque. “I never look at it as a business is doing anything maliciously, I always look at it as a lack of education.”
Davis said he pushes for more education over filing lawsuits. “I don’t think that’s how it should be,” said Davis.
Vaidya said hotels want to accommodate everyone and should be given notice to fix the issue before a lawsuit is filed. New Mexico’s hospitality industry suffered a massive economic blow during the pandemic, and these lawsuits, he claims, are a money grab.
“This past week, we’ve had three hotels robbed at gunpoint,” said Vaidya. “This is very similar to that. They’re not using a gun, they’re using a piece of paper – a document, to basically rob us.”
Bacon points out the ADA law is 30-years-old and claims his office isn’t out for quick settlements, but rather, widespread change. “We are aware of financial stress suffered by the industry,” said Bacon. “We’re very sympathetic to that. We’re very reasonable in our settlements.”
When asked what he’d like to see based on these lawsuits, Bacon replied, “The end goal is that people in wheelchairs can go out just like everybody else. You know, we are all aware that we are one traffic accident away from that being us.”
A federal judge in New York dismissed 17 online reservation lawsuits involving the same attorney and ADA violations, saying the plaintiff in those cases had no actual plans to stay in the hotels being sued. A New Mexico judge has yet to make a ruling here.