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Daytona man's disabilities lawsuits cause records jams for cities in Volusia, Flagler
News-Journal - 8/10/2019
If you're having trouble finding what you're looking for on your city's or county's website, even information you know used to be there, you're not alone.
For years, common documents like commission agenda packets have been easy to download and view in minutes. But now, in many cases, those documents are gone from city sites and only available to the public by request.
[READ MORE: Volusia's city governments work to make websites ADA-compliant]
[READ MORE: Flagler settles suit over website accessibility]
Many counties and municipalities across Florida, including both Volusia and Flagler counties, have removed records from public view on the heels of a slew of lawsuits based on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Daytona Beach resident Joel Price, who according to court documents is legally blind, has filed at least 130 federal lawsuits in Florida'sMiddle District since 2016. His latest suit was filed against the city of Edgewater in June.
At the core of the suits is Price's claim that, as a blind man, he cannot access information others can view on the city's website, which is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Passed in 1990, the Act, which is more commonly referred to as ADA, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.
According to court documents, Price emailed Edgewater officials in January asking them to convert several documents on the website to make the records ADA-compliant by making them readable with his text-to-speech software. In the suit, Price claims the city never did that.
At a recent City Council meeting, Edgewater City Attorney Aaron Wolfe said the city plans to get Price's suit dismissed.
"I'm in the process of preparing a motion to dismiss the complaint based on what I feel is a lack of standing on Mr. Price to bring the case against the city because he does not live in the city," Wolfe told elected officials in late July. The suit claims Edgewater is just one of many cities Price is considering moving to, but Wolfe told officials he doesn't believe that's enough for a court to allow the complaint to stand.
"Some suits have been thrown out for lack of standing," said Wolfe.
While several court documents in the case were ADA compliant, Wolfe's motion to dismiss was not.
In the meantime, Price shows no sign of slowing down his string of litigation across the state. At least 48 of the 130 lawsuits have been filed since the beginning of this year, alone.
In addition to Edgewater, Price and the Miami-based law firm of Scott Dinin have sued dozens of businesses like Halifax Health, Flagler Hospital and motorcycle-parts company J&P Cycles, as well as dozens more city and county governments, including both Volusia and Flagler counties, Port Orange, Holly Hill, DeLand and Daytona Beach.
On Friday, court documents show attorney Dinin attempted to remove himself from Price's cases, leaving co-counsel J. Courtney Cunningham, another Miami lawyer, in charge. The reason remained unclear Friday.
Efforts to reach Price's attorney were not immediately successful.
Although the Daytona Beach resident is at the very center of more than a hundred lawsuits, Price has not been quoted in any media coverage of the issue.
But he exists. He lives in a beachside apartment complex. A dog helps him navigate his way around.
"Oh yeah, I exist," said Price when reached at his home on Friday.
Dressed in cut-off jeans and a black Milwaukee Tools shirt, his seeing-eye doberman Judy by his side, Price wouldn't comment on any of the litigation, referring all questions to his attorney, Dinin.
But in the hope he might gain approval for a photo for this story, Price made several attempts to reach his lawyer by phone via a speech-to-text app, with no success.
"Don't ever go blind," Price said with a sigh, frustrated by the application's failure.
He was unaware Dinin had made an attempt to remove himself from the Edgewater case.
Several local governments, including Holly Hill and Port Orange, have settled their cases for several thousands of dollars and a promise to work on the compliance issues.
Early this year, Flagler County agreed to settle for $15,000 and this summer, Port Orange settled for $8,000, spokeswoman Christine Martindale said in an email.
"The City was given 24 months to ensure that any new PDF content uploaded to the City's website is accessible with individuals who are visually impaired," said Martindale, noting that the costs were covered by the city's insurance carrier.
Holly Hill settled for the same amount, $8,000, and City Manager Joe Forte said the settlement requires the city site to be ADA compliant by June of next year.
While the city works on that, Forte has been sending his staff to training seminars to help them get up to speed on the requirements to comply with the law. Other cities are doing the same.
Daytona State College's
Center for Business & Industry is set to host an ADA compliance computer class Aug. 20. The course aims to help with the basics of making different documents ADA accessible, that is, readable with a text-to-speech application or machine.
Forte said for staff who've attended, the "conferences have helped, if nothing else, to understand other agencies positions and responses."
At least 12 suits remain open for now, including Daytona Beach and DeLand.
DeLand spokesman Chris Graham said Friday while the case remains unresolved, the city has made "great strides" in making sure information is accessible to everyone and will continue to do so.
The fallout from these lawsuits ranges in impact.
In cities like Port Orange, a few documents have been removed at a time to make them ADA accessible and then they were put back in place.
Other cities, like New Smyrna Beach, began by removing everything and have been slowly replacing data over time as documents have been rescanned and made compliant.
Still others, like South Daytona, removed all documents from the website, but after three quarters of a year the timeline for when those documents might get replaced remains fuzzy. Right now the city merely has a notice on its site that states the website is undergoing maintenance. It's been posted there for months.
South Daytona Deputy City Clerk Debbie Fitz-Gerald said the city still isn't sure how long it might take to get the site back to normal.
"At this time, I do not know," said Fitz-Gerald. "Our IT Department is working on it."
But taking everything offline may have saved the small city from a lawsuit. As of Friday, South Daytona remained in the clear.
What happens now?
Like other cities across Volusia and Flagler, public documents remain public, but some are taking a few more steps to collect.
In South Daytona, Fitz-Gerald said citizens who ask can be put on a distribution list that she sends out immediately after the agenda packet is ready. Some other city clerks across the area have done the same, so it is best for residents to reach out directly if they are having trouble finding what they want online.
In the meantime, however, while the access issue has created a temporary inconvenience, the efforts to make documents readable for the visually impaired also will make previously unsearchable documents searchable in the long run.
That means it could eventually become easier for everyone to find what they're looking for online.
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