Disability lawsuit filed against Chapel Hill shopping center

Dec. 28, 2012 @ 06:32 PM

A Florida woman who has filed hundreds of lawsuits complaining that businesses are not complying with the American Disabilities Act has filed one against a shopping center in Chapel Hill.

It’s not her first complaint against a Chapel Hill business, and according to federal court records, she has filed about 90 such lawsuits in North Carolina alone. She has also filed many similar lawsuits in her home state of Florida, as well as a number of other states including Maryland, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Denise Payne, who rides in a motorized wheelchair, and the not-for-profit organization she founded in Florida, National Alliance For Accessibility Inc., filed a complaint in October against Chapel Hill North Properties, a shopping center located near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the Interstate 40 interchange.

In the lawsuit filed in District Court of the United States for the Middle District of North Carolina, Payne claims she visited the shopping center in June 2010, April 2012 and September 2012 while on a trips to North Carolina.

During the trips, she stated that she flew into Raleigh-Durham International Airport, sometimes stayed at a hotel in Raleigh and traveled to Winston-Salem to see her attorney. She also stated that she has traveled to other areas in the state to try to organize chapters of her organization.

“Plaintiff Payne prefers to shop at the Chapel Hill North shopping center because it is convenient and has an attractive selection of goods and services,” the lawsuit states.

In similar wording to other lawsuits Payne has filed, she claimed the disabled parking spaces do not have clear and level access aisles and some of the parking signs are not at the right height.

Payne also claimed that some paths of travels and ramps contain excessive slopes or there are changes in level of greater than a half-inch. Some stores have counters higher than 36 inches and there are paper dispensers in restrooms with controls that are not at the correct height, she claimed.

Payne claims she and others are being discriminated against because they do not have full access to the services and facilities. The lawsuit is not asking for money but rather it is asking for action.

Roane Cross Jr., president of one of the companies that owns and manages the shopping center, said he was aware of the lawsuit and had referred it to counsel.

“The matter is pending,” he said. “It’s not resolved yet.”

He added that the company follows ADA rules and believes they are important.

“We do all we can,” he said.

Payne’s complaints are often settled quickly, within a matter of months, although some of her cases have been dismissed in North Carolina.

In a complaint she filed against Macy’s in Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem, U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder dismissed her complaint against the store in October, saying she lacked standing to file the complaint.

Payne has cerebral palsy. She said she is an advocate for disabled individuals through ADA litigation, according to the judge’s order. Across the country, she has filed nearly 300 lawsuits.

Like the lawsuit against Chapel Hill North, she wrote in the complaint that she visited Macy’s several times.

In the judge’s analysis of the Macy’s case, he wrote that for a case to be heard in federal court, a plaintiff must allege that the person must have a personal stake in the outcome.

“Payne, who lives over 700 miles from Macy’s, does not regularly visit the Macy’s store,” the judge wrote.

Other similar cases that have gone forward came from plaintiffs who did live in relatively close proximity to sites they sued, and they were likely to regularly revisit the sites, the judge wrote.

Some of Payne’s previous lawsuits have been dismissed because she only visited the location one time before filing the lawsuit, and it appears she changed her strategy by visiting locations several times before filing lawsuits, the judge wrote.

“Such gamesmanship is readily apparent here, as demonstrated by the complaint and Payne’s affidavit,” Schroeder wrote. “The second visit to the Macy’s store occurred some 15 months after the first, the day Payne verified the complaint and one day before filing of this action.”

Payne’s attorney in Florida, Lawrence Fuller, and Payne’s attorney in North Carolina, Christopher D. Lane, could not be reached for comment.