Arizona indefinitely suspends attorney behind more than 1,700 ADA lawsuits
Bringing at least temporary relief to hundreds of businesses operating in Arizona, the state’s presiding disciplinary judge entered an order suspending Arizona attorney Peter Strojnik from the practice of law on an indefinite basis. The order results from a motion for interim suspension that the State Bar of Arizona filed on March 6, 2018, that included more than 300 pages of exhibits detailing the litigation tactics Strojnik used to bring more than 1,700 lawsuits against Arizona businesses alleging minor, technical violations of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Arizonans with Disabilities Act (AzDA), such as a lack of van-accessible parking signage or parking signs that are posted a few inches too low. The Arizona attorney general moved to intervene and consolidate those cases, and then successfully moved to dismiss all pending cases for lack of standing.
After the Arizona state court enjoined the plaintiffs in those cases from filing any new state court lawsuits under the AzDA or the ADA, Strojnik filed 150 new ADA lawsuits against Phoenix-area hotels and motels in federal court on behalf of a different plaintiff, Fernando Gastelum. Gastelum sought injunctive relief, compensatory damages for emotional distress, and attorneys’ fees in all of the lawsuits. Most of those cases settled, and several were dismissed for lack of standing. The Arizona attorney general is now seeking to intervene in Gastelum’s appeal of the cases that were dismissed, arguing that the state of Arizona has protectable interests in “the economic well-being of its businesses subject to Strojnik’s improper suits and related shakedown tactics.”
This steady stream of lawsuits prompted at least 15 business owners to file complaints with the State Bar of Arizona. After investigating the complaints, the state bar filed a motion for interim suspension, which argued that Strojnik’s conduct was “causing loss to the public and damage to the legal profession.”
Strojnik filed a 112-page response to the motion and argued that any issues related to the lawsuits should be handled by the state and federal courts where the suits were pending. A hearing panel conducted an evidentiary hearing on the state bar’s motion on May 3, 2018, and issued an order suspending Strojnik from practice on July 11, 2018.
To support its motion, the State Bar of Arizona asserted that Strojnik had violated Ethical Rules 1.2, 1.4, 1.5(a), 3.3(a), 8.4(c), and 8.4(d). The presiding disciplinary judge noted that suspension is appropriate when a lawyer knowingly engages in conduct that violates a duty owed to the profession and “causes injury or potential injury to a client, the public, or the legal system.” The judge found this standard was met, as the evidence and testimony showed that Strojnik was “partaking in a scheme that will cause imminent and substantial harm to the public and administration of justice.” Because Strojnik continued to file additional lawsuits while the state bar’s motion for interim suspension was pending, the judge concluded that his conduct would continue without immediate action by the court. The judge finally concluded that any potential damage to Strojnik was outweighed by the harm to the public and to the profession.
Strojnik has been suspended from the practice of law effective immediately on an interim basis and until further order of the court. He can appeal the ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court.
Arizona business owners should not assume that this suspension means the dramatic rise in Title III lawsuits will slow down. Strojnik’s son, Peter K. Strojnik, has filed ADA suits against more than 500 California hotels and motels in the last two years and continues to do so. Business owners, including hotel owners and operators, in Arizona and other states may want to inspect their physical places of business, their websites and online reservation systems, and the way they provide their services to ensure compliance with the ADA—and to avoid being a target for the next serial plaintiff.
Caroline Larsen is a shareholder at Ogletree Deakins. This column was originally published by Ogletree Deakins.