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OPINION: Villainizing the Victims

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OPINION:  Villainizing the Victims

By HolLynn D’Lil

The caption under the photo of the owners of the Rio Nido Roadhouse in the Press Democrat’s (PD) article on Thursday, February 9 says it all. The owners installed a ramp for customers with disabilities in 2015. The underlying message is that they should be applauded for this action. The reporter, Paul Payne, doesn’t state that the ramp was installed 43 years after CA Health and Safety Code 19955 was passed requiring access be provided when businesses remodel. Nor that it was 25 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act which requires that businesses remove their barriers. No, the business owners are to be applauded for discontinuing their violations of the law, and Richard Skaff who tried to provide information to the owners on how to comply with the law is vilified by the PD. 

The reporter, Paul Payne, didn’t provide the information of how long the owners have been violating state and Federal laws. Nor did he reveal that there is a $10,000 tax credit for small businesses for barrier removal.  Instead, he quoted witnesses against Mr. Skaff who had to be taken to court to stop their illegal operations. Nor did he quote any of the many witnesses who supported Mr. Skaff in the trial.

Paul Payne simply didn’t do sufficient research to provide a balanced picture of the Rio Nido Roadhouse trial. He didn’t report that the witness who said she hired Skaff as an access consultant for $1,500 received seven hours of expert consultation, providing code and regulatory information so she could remove architectural barriers that prevented customers with disabilities from using her Inn.  She later admitted that Skaff didn’t demand money or threaten to sue her. That same change in testimony happened with each of the hostile witnesses when questioned by Mr. Skaff’s attorneys. In every case, each said that Skaff never threatened to sue them or demand money from them.  Payne omitted this important information.

Instead, Payne reports on previous lawsuits by Mr. Skaff as if they were a bad thing, and is now “turning his sights on the Rio Nido Roadhouse.”  Really?  These businesses which have violated state law requiring access in new construction since 1969 and when remodeling since 1972, let alone the requirements of the ADA since 1990, are the victims?  What about the millions of people with disabilities who have been disenfranchised all these decades by businesses like the Rio Nido Roadhouse? 

It’s this kind of biased reporting that encourages businesses to continue to violate disability civil rights laws almost a half century since their passage.  It’s this kind of biased reporting that intimidates people with disabilities who don’t dare ask that their civil rights be enforced because they know they will face retaliation and humiliation by the press. 

The reporter even faulted Mr. Skaff for never going inside the Roadhouse. How could he, if he couldn’t get in? Why didn’t he ask instead why it is necessary for people to sue businesses for violations of access laws that are almost five decades old? Why are the courts the only resource for compliance? Maybe he could ask why architects don’t include accessible design to comply with the laws in their work?  Why don’t local building departments do their job which is to enforce the access laws? 

The reporter also allowed to stand one of the quotes from a hostile witnesses who called Mr. Skaff a “so-called” expert. The reporter didn’t bother to check Mr. Skaff’s expertise, including his extensive back ground as Chief Building Inspector, ADA Coordinator of Public Works and Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office on Disability in San Francisco and that he sat on three committees for the U.S. Access Board and on a committee on access for the National Fire Protection Association. He IS an expert, beyond doubt.

Another question – would the reporter have only quoted witnesses against Mr. Skaff and none that supported him in the lawsuit if Mr. Skaff weren’t disabled?  He built a picture of Mr. Skaff as intimidating and unethical. Why? Would he have done that to a man who wasn’t in a wheelchair? Aggressiveness in men is usually applauded. (Governor Brown’s aggressive stance on immigration, for example.)  This is like the treatment that women receive if they are “too demanding.” They are “shrill,” “inappropriate,” “acting beyond their place.” As in, “Sit down and shut up, Senator Warren.”

Comments:

I have to respectfully disagree with your opinion.  On the subject of (to quote your article), "The reporter faulted Mr. Skaff for never going inside the Roadhouse".  Hmm, what's he been doing for the last year plus that the wheelchair accessible ramp has been in place?

On the subject of (to again quote your article), "The reporter, Paul Payne, doesn't state that the ramp was installed 43 years after CA Health and Safety Code 19955 was passed, requiring access be provided WHEN businesses remodel.  Well, not to single out any other businesses, but I worked for a lodging facility who took that long to provide ADA compliant access to two of its 46 rooms. 

I know someone who used to make money at doing the very thing which Mr. Skaff does.  She would attempt to access facilities in Southern California, then threaten to sue if they were not ADA compliant.  (Yes, she is confined to a wheelchair).  She'd get a cut of the settlement money, and the lawyers would get rich.  Seems as though Mr. Skaff is doing the very same thing, given that he has no inclination to visit/patronize the business that he's busy suing.  

How many businesses has he sued?  How many businesses would actually get his business if they were compliant?  Having my life experience and personally knowing how that game is played, perhaps that makes me jaded, but in this case, I think Paul Payne is right on point. 

Of course, opinions differ, and everyone has different life experiences by which to measure and judge a story.

- Gregory Smith

Ms. d'Lil was a board member on Skaff's organization. She and Skaff sued many businesses together.

https://www.plainsite.org/dockets/i7ue36h0/california-northern-district-court/dlil-v-speedway-motorsports-inc-et-al/

Karen Cox

Opinion: Who Is Villainizing Which Victims?

Ms. D’Lil: You make various assertions without identifying yourself. For transparency purposes, you ought to acknowledge you have been Mr. Skaff’s partner in many of the 100s of ADA lawsuits he has filed. You were on the board of his now-closed down foundation and were a co-plaintiff in the suit against the Sonoma (Infineon) Raceway in 2008 and represented by the same law firm now suing the roadhouse. How many other ADA lawsuits did you co-file with Mr. Skaff?

For complete transparency purposes, I will tell you and the readers that I am the mother of Brad Metzger, owner of the Rio Nido Roadhouse (renamed from the Rio Nido Bar). I sat in that courtroom for all the same hours that Mr. Skaff did, five hours a day for more than three weeks. I listened carefully to the testimony of every person on that stand and read all the depositions. Ms. D’Lil, you referred to the wrong witnesses, the wrong amount of money, and the wrong testimony about threats and intimidation. 

Mr. Skaff was initially quite confused about the date he allegedly visited the roadhouse, but he did testify that he sat idling his van in the lot for no more than three minutes. He announced to Mr. Metzger in their initial phone conversation that he wasn’t calling to file a “drive-by lawsuit,” a term Mr. Metzger had never encountered. Mr. Skaff told the court he wanted to enjoy a meal and listen to the live music that night of October 18, 2012 like he had decades ago. No restaurant existed there until our son put one in. There is never live music at the roadhouse on a Thursday evening when Mr. Skaff claimed he was there. There was no sign on the road advertising music, as he claimed.

Also, there had been a ramp leading up to the pool and a disabled parking sign on a pole at the base of that ramp for years. No disabled customer of the roadhouse ever complained to Mr. Metzger since he bought the place in 2007 that they’d encountered a barrier. The night of Mr. Skaff’s alleged visit, the parking lot was full, and another car was parked in the disabled space. Mr. Skaff acknowledged he never called in to the roadhouse to request help or information about other possible access. Yet, he seems to have a deal with the Garden Grill in Guerneville whereby he calls ahead to the staff to inform them he’ll be arriving. He then parks at the business next door in a disabled space (because the Garden Grill has no ADA parking), travels in his wheelchair behind a row of parked cars along a busy road, and then has a staff person from the Garden Grill haul him backwards in his wheelchair up the very steep and rough ramp into the restaurant. He testified to the foregoing.

You should know that as soon as Mr. Metzger purchased the roadhouse, he had an AIA architect design a kitchen plus two ADA parking spaces for the front lot that Mr. Metzger hoped to own at some point. Mr. Metzger’s business ran in the red for seven years and he had a hardship designation; building the two ADA parking spaces and ramp was neither financially possible nor readily achievable. Mr. Metzger never owned the front parking lot where the two ADA parking spaces were intended to go, nor after the first year of operation did he own, operate or control that lot. It was not for lack of trying.

You can quote all the regulations you want and rant against PD reporter Paul Payne’s article, but readers ought to view this segment on 60 Minutes about drive-by and Google-earth lawsuits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Xjq9xWnwT0. It’s eerily familiar. Who’s the victim?

Sandy Metzger

Having sat in that court room and listened to testimony from witnesses, it's difficult to read this slanted opinion. I understand that businesses need to get up to code...But Skaff seems in the business of suing. Period. This is what I ascertained after hearing the testimony from people who swore on the Bible that they had been pressured or threatened by Mr.

Skaff. I think the article in the Press Democrat hit the nail on the head....  

Robbi Bryant