Theo Karantsalis has lived with his family in the tree-lined community of Miami Springs for more than 20 years.
But in 2019, Karantsalis, who once competed in triathlon competitions, was forced to stop working because his longtime struggles with multiple sclerosis prevented him from being able to walk. He went from using forearm crutches to a walker to a wheelchair. He also lost a lot of weight, about 50 pounds, and developed psoriatic arthritis that caused lesions all over his body.
Ironically, it was his weakening condition that would launch Karantsalis on what would prove a Herculean task — a one-man battle against his own city to improve disability access. He lost the legal battle but also won the bigger war, if at a cost.
His mission really began when one of his doctors suggested that he go outside, get some sun and start swimming at a municipal pool a few blocks from his home.
“I spent several months sitting in the study of my home, with everything dark,” recalled Karantsalis, 62. He was forced to give up his work as a librarian for Miami Dade College at the Carrie Meek Entrepreneurial Center in Liberty City and his life increasingly revolved around visiting doctors and taking heavy prescription drugs.
But there were obstacles to getting to the pool. It was difficult to navigate the sidewalk and curb in front of his house, which fronts a busy street that leads to Miami Springs Senior High School. He noticed the absence of handicap parking spaces at the pool complex, a city tennis facility and other public places, as well as on the main street in front of city hall, the public works department and a police substation.
While lawyers file most Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits in South Florida, Karantsalis decided to represent himself as the plaintiff in a 2019 case in Miami federal court that accused the city of committing multiple ADA violations. Without a lawyer by his side, however, he made no progress. The city’s attorneys even questioned his disabilities, court papers show.
“I provided all of my records from my doctors,” Karantsalis said. “That was very hurtful.”
Undeterred, Karantsalis reached out to a longtime friend, ADA advocate Matthew Dietz, a professor at the disability law clinic at the Nova Southeastern University College of Law. Thanks to Dietz, his ADA lawsuit regained traction in 2021 when a federal appeals court found that the statute of limitations had not yet expired in the case. It was set for trial in Miami federal court.
But before trial last year, the city repaired the sidewalk, cut the curb in front of his home and added accessible parking places in front of the tennis complex and a handicap spot in front of city hall. Miami Springs officials, however, refused to add other accessible parallel parking spots on the city’s main street, Westward Drive, saying it was not feasible. Officials said it was not necessary under ADA law because there was ample handicap parking on the side streets near the municipal buildings.
Karantsalis, in a rare ADA case that went to trial, lost. U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga sided with the city on the remaining issues. That wasn’t the worst part.
The city then asked the judge to order Karantsalis to pay its legal costs: $12,661.
“I felt it was cruel beyond measure, because all I was asking for was equal access to the city’s programs, services and activities,” he said.
His lawyer, Dietz, said the city and its lawyers were being spiteful. “They wanted to punish him for bringing the lawsuit against the city,” he said.
After the trial, Dietz accused the city and its lawyers of withholding critical evidence about proposed parking changes in the downtown area along Westward Drive that would have affected his legal strategy. He also accused them of fraud and perjury.
And despite losing at trial, Dietz said his client actually won because the city had made several last-minute ADA fixes before proceeding to tip the scales of justice. Altonaga recently agreed with Dietz’s argument and chastised the city’s lawyers for withholding evidence before trial, but stopped short of saying anyone committed fraud or perjury.
But, in a win for Karantsalis, the judge also denied the city’s bid to bill him for legal costs while allowing Dietz to apply for his attorney’s fees and costs. In late March, Altonaga rejected his request.
Karantsalis, who had once also worked as a community freelance writer for the Miami Herald, called the legal ordeal a “nightmare” but ultimately worth it, forcing Miami Springs to make facilities more accessible to himself and others.
Miami Springs’ trial attorney, Chris Stearns, defended the city’s actions. He said “the city takes these issues very seriously and is willing to work with anyone who has issues with ADA compliance.” In Karantsalis’ case, “as soon as the city learned of any ADA violations, the city took action to remediate them.”
Stearns said the city only asked to recover its legal costs because it was allowed to do so after winning at trial. “We took no action against Mr. Karantsalis to be cruel.”