By Minh N. Vu
Seyfarth Synopsis: Serious sanctions imposed on a serial ADA Title III plaintiff and his attorney should concern the plaintiffs’ bar.
People often ask us why plaintiffs are filing hundreds of ADA Title III lawsuits when the law only allows for injunctive relief and attorneys’ fees and costs. In the case of prolific plaintiff Alexander Johnson, it was a nice cash supplement to his disability income, apparently. U.S. District Judge Paul Huck determined after a sanctions hearing that Attorney Scott Dinin had paid Johnson more than $84,500 over three years (2016-2018) for his participation in various ADA lawsuits. The court wrote in its 21-page Sanctions Order:
This case reveals an illicit joint enterprise between Plaintiff, Alexander Johnson, and his attorney, Scott R. Dinin of Scott R. Dinin P.A., to dishonestly line their pockets with attorneys’ fees from hapless defendants under the sanctimonious guise of serving the interests of the disabled community. Through this illicit joint enterprise, Johnson and Dinin filed numerous frivolous claims, knowingly misrepresented the billable time expended to litigate these claims, made numerous other misrepresentations to the Court, and improperly shared attorneys’ fees in violation of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar, all done without regard to the interests of those with disabilities.
The Court based its findings on settlements from other ADA lawsuits, financial records, billing records, and even some email communications between Dinin and Johnson. The Court ordered the following sanctions:
- Disgorgement of all fees and costs obtained by Alexander and Dinin in all 26 gas pump cases they had filed, totaling $59,900;
- Payment of $59,900 by Dinin;
- 400 hours of community service by Johnson because he could not afford to pay the $59,900 penalty imposed by the Court;
- An indefinite prohibition against Dinin and Johnson from filing ADA complaints in any state or federal court without first obtaining the Court’s permission;
- A referral of Dinin to the Florida Bar for an investigation into his conduct relating to all of his ADA lawsuits;
- A requirement that Dinin file the Sanctions Order in every court in which he has filed a lawsuit in the past two years.
The Sanctions Order is an unexpected end to two of twenty-six cases brought by Johnson against gas station owners for allegedly showing TV programming on gas pumps that did not have closed captioning for the deaf. Defendants did not respond to the complaints and Johnson moved for the entry of a default judgment. At the hearing on the default motion, the Court decided to probe deeper into Dinan and Johnson’s Title III lawsuit filings which eventually led to the Sanctions Order.
Dinin was counsel for the plaintiff in the first website accessibility lawsuit to ever to go trial (Gil v. Winn Dixie). Winn Dixie’s appeal of the pro-plaintiff judgment in that case is awaiting a decision from the Eleventh Circuit, and it is unclear what impact, if any, the Sanctions Order will have on the award of fees and costs in that closely watched case.
The prohibition against future filings by Dinin and Alexander should reduce the number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in Florida in the future. According to PACER, Dinin was counsel of record in over 251 federal lawsuits in 2018 and 177 in 2019. Johnson was a plaintiff in 50 cases in 2018 and 24 in 2019.
While the total number of ADA Title III lawsuits continues to climb, with no legislative or regulatory relief for businesses in sight, this Sanctions Order suggests that some judges have had enough and may be applying more scrutiny to ADA Title III claims. In the meantime, we will be watching to see whether Dinin or Johnson appeal the Sanctions Order.
Edited by Kristina Launey