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Woman files 31 lawsuits in 6 years

April 23, 2006

One of Linda Van Deusen’s favorite meals is the chicken salad at Applebee’s.

She goes to the restaurant on Augusta Road in West Columbia [South Carolina] a lot. She’s a fan.

That’s why she’s suing it.

Van Deusen also loves the shore, particularly Myrtle Beach, Folly Beach and Isle of Palms.

She has sued all of them, too — along with businesses from Columbia to the coast:

• A Holiday Inn, Sticky Fingers and Exxon station in Charleston

• A Sticky Fingers, Hallmark store, Microtel and IHOP in Mount Pleasant

• A Comfort Inn on Hilton Head Island

In all, the Columbia woman, who uses a wheelchair, has filed 31 federal lawsuits in six years — turning a personal injury into a personal crusade for the rights of the disabled.

None of her lawsuits has gone to trial. Seventeen have been settled out of court. Fourteen are pending, including three lawsuits filed on the same day this month.

All the defendants who have settled agreed to make changes and pay Van Deusen’s attorney fees. In a few cases, they also paid small damages.

She says the cases have not made her rich.

Van Deusen drives an Econoline Van with duct tape holding her seat belt together. Much of her time is spent caring for her infirm husband, who has the same movement disorder she has — dystonia — plus a host of other ailments that render him helpless.

Van Deusen is a retired state employee with a squeaky voice that peaks in the middle of sentences and drowns by the periods. She owns conversations, running them at her pace and by her rules.

Her state job, helping disabled people redesign their homes, made her a self-educated expert in the Americans with Disabilities Act — the 1990 federal legislation that guarantees the handicapped access to public buildings.

But most of Van Deusen’s friends and colleagues, including her pastoral counselor at Shandon Baptist Church, didn’t know about the lawsuits that she has filed until The State newspaper published an article in January.

“Nobody knew anything,” Van Deusen said. “I was just nothing, and I liked being nothing.”

Why, then, does she travel the state filing lawsuits? That’s easy.

She says it’s the will of God.

“Over the years, I’ve learned all this stuff,” she said. “God surely has a purpose for it.”

Van Deusen, who says she’s “old enough,” has sued all the major governments in the Midlands, three coastal municipalities, the state Department of Motor Vehicles, restaurants and — in New Jersey — an aquarium.

She claims DMV is a “habitual offender of access laws,” lacking proper parking spaces, access aisles, curb ramps and accessible routes.

She has asked for better access to Richland County’s library and Lexington County’s new $16 million courthouse and renovated administration building.

She has sued several malls, including Anderson Mall, Haywood Mall in Greenville and Columbiana Centre in Columbia.

She has sued the Westside Medical Centre in West Columbia, a McAlister’s Deli in Forest Acres and two small shopping centers on Harbison Boulevard.

All her accessibility lawsuits have been filed since 2001. Her husband, John, has joined her on 10 of those lawsuits.

She insists she is not a drive-by litigator.

“I’m not a bad person,” she said. “I’m trying to help all of us.”

Van Deusen’s first lawsuit was against Hofstra University on Long Island in New York.

Her wheelchair hit a curb cut and she flew out, tearing the ligaments in her knee. She was at the college attending an international conference on accessibility.

“Hofstra wasn’t willing to do anything. Out of all things at an accessibility conference. Duh! So we had to go after them to get them to fix it,” she said. “I wouldn’t have done it, except there was a bunch of people sitting on a bench, and they spoke with an Irish accent. The lady said, ‘You’re not the first face to hit the pavement.’

“That made me start noticing a lot of things in the public eye. You get a little skittish once you hit that curb.”

With prodding from friends, Van Deusen decided to hire an attorney. She was introduced to attorney Anthony Brady of New Jersey, and the two have been suing ever since.

Brady said he represents about 20 people who file lawsuits under the disabilities act.

“The clients contact me from all across the country,” Brady said.

Van Deusen’s most contested lawsuit, according to Brady, is against Myrtle Beach.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, she claims the city “constructed a walkway with steps when it was previously a flat access route to the beach” and the city does not have proper parking and restrooms.

City spokesman Mark Kruea said many of the beach access areas are handicapped accessible and the city is fixing those that aren’t. He said the city provides free, beach-going wheelchairs — first-come, first-served.

“We are very conscious of the need to serve those residents and visitors who have physical disabilities,” Kruea said.

Van Deusen disagrees, saying the handicapped access points are too spread out. “I shouldn’t have to hunt for them,” she said.

The Myrtle Beach complaint is identical to lawsuits Van Deusen filed against Isle of Palms and Folly Beach. Those lawsuits were filed four days apart in September 2003.

Both cities agreed to make their facilities “much more accessible,” Brady said, but he could not elaborate because of a confidentiality agreement.

“As I’m sure you’ll find with any beach community, access to the beach is difficult,” said Linda Tucker, city administrator for the Isle of Palms. “We actually thought we were doing fairly well, I think, and that suit did point out to us some things that we needed to do better.”

In Lexington County, Van Deusen wants to get into the courtroom.

She filed a lawsuit in September — one of three in the same week — citing violations at the county’s new administration and courthouse buildings.

Van Deusen’s complaint says the buildings don’t have proper parking or bathrooms, and she can’t get into the courtrooms.

Outgoing County Administrator Art Brooks said the lawsuit is the first complaint the county has had about the new building.

“We still have not really seen what they are complaining about,” Brooks said. “We’ve no reason to think that the architects missed anything when they designed it. If they did, we’ll do what’s right.”

Van Deusen’s past lawsuits could play a role in her case against Myrtle Beach.

The city has asked Van Deusen’s attorney, Brady, to identify every “report, charge, complaint, action or lawsuit” that the Columbia woman and her co-defendant, Orlando resident Ed Law, have been involved in.

Law has filed 36 lawsuits, including a 2002 lawsuit against a Florida strip club complaining that a lap dance room was only accessible by stairs.

Hundreds of lawsuits citing the Disabilities Act have been filed nationwide, so many that some judges have started limiting the ability of some plaintiffs to sue.

In California, a federal judge declared Jarek Molski a “vexatious litigant,” after he filed 400 Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits in six years. Molski was banned from filing any lawsuits without court approval.

Van Deusen is trying to avoid that kind of criticism, but it won’t be easy, said Larry McIver, a former Charleston resident now living in Albuquerque, N.M.

From 1997 to 1999, McIver filed 10 accessibility lawsuits in South Carolina. He has filed 27 accessibility lawsuits in six states.

McIver’s legal exploits were widely covered by Charleston area media. He says he was criticized at work and got a hate letter.

“To me ... I’m standing up for my civil rights, and if you don’t like it, too bad,” he said.

Attorneys and legal experts say disability lawsuits are more common in places such as California and Florida because plaintiffs in those states can win higher damages.

South Carolina restricts damage awards for plaintiffs in accessibility cases to no more than $5,000 per case.

Charleston attorney Harriet McBryde Johnson, who also uses a wheelchair, filed an accessibility lawsuit against the Ashley Hall Foundation in 1999.

“I feel a little guilty about not doing more,” Johnson said. But “it took a lot of time and energy, and I didn’t get paid.”

About five defendants in the 31 lawsuits filed by Van Deusen have paid damages, said Brady, her attorney. He would not say how much those payments were, but he said the median amount was $500.

Carol Teal worked with Van Deusen at the state Vocational Rehabilitation Department. She found out about the lawsuits when someone sent her a copy of an article.

“She never mentioned a thing with Myrtle Beach until I brought it up,” Teal said.

Van Deusen said she didn’t plan on becoming a crusading litigator. It just seemed to work out that way.

And not every lawsuit leaves a bad taste.

In 2002, Van Deusen sued the city of Columbia over access to Finlay Park. The case was settled in March 2004.

But her complaints also prompted Columbia City Council to install televisions that broadcast council’s meetings in City Hall’s lobby. The building’s elevators are too small for wheelchairs.

Mayor Bob Coble said he is accustomed to people making suggestions, including suggestions in lawsuits. He said the changes have made for a “better City Hall.”

Van Deusen, at least, was satisfied.

“They were just nice,” she said, but, “their ramp is still too steep.”

News at

List of ADA lawsuits filed between 2000-2006 at

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