It's still happening - and this time it's taking place in our own backyard. Predatory American Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits are being filed against small business owners across Manteca. Twenty-one businesses have already been hit, all by Sacramento-area attorney Scott Johnson who has over 3,000 such lawsuits pending throughout California.
Johnson is actively shaking down small businesses in hopes of lining his own pockets. Darrell Eppler, a gas station owner in Manteca, has already paid over $90,000 to fight Johnson's fallacious allegations. Some business owners are even closing up shop out of fear of being targeted. John Perez has shut the doors of his cabinet business while he formulates a plan to combat Johnson's witch hunt. He fears a lawsuit would put him out of business permanently. Business owners are suffering, revenues are suffering, and livelihoods are suffering - all because one man is taking advantage of vaguely crafted laws.
In most cases, it's obvious that Johnson's ADA violation claims don't have legal legs, but he files in hopes business owners are either unaware of that or will fail to correct violations in the allotted time frame so he can move forward with his suits. And Johnson is not the only lawyer playing the ‘get-rich-quick' game. Last year, Yuba City had to pay $15,000 to West Sacramento resident George Louie, a prolific ADA violation plaintiff, to prevent him from bringing any other suits in the city. Louie has filed over 1,000 ADA-related claims against small businesses and local governments.
California now has some laws in place that give business owners an opportunity to remedy any ADA-related shortcomings before a lawsuit is allowed to proceed. However, lawsuits must be filed in a state court. Those that originate in federal court do not benefit from these protections.
California's business owners do have some tools in their defense arsenal to help protect them in the case of a lawsuit, but their effectiveness requires being proactive. The California Access Specialist program (CASp) is designed to meet the public's need for qualified inspectors who can validate compliance with accessibility standards. According to the Department of General Services, a CASp specialist can provide accessibility evaluation services that "can offer you ‘qualified defendant' status should a construction-related accessibility claim be filed against you. However, this must be done before a lawsuit is filed. I recommend that all businesses seek this out as an inexpensive way to help repel predatory ADA lawsuits.
I continue to explore ways that I can combat this type of frivolity at the state level. Last year, I authored AB 223 that extended the protections that small business have at the state level to local governments who were inadvertently left out. I will continue to research and pursue other avenues to end these lawsuits once and for all. The Americans with Disabilities Act was rightly intended to help the disabled, not line the pockets of greedy predators. My, how far we've moved from the law's intent.
Please call my office to share your ADA compliance related-challenges. You can reach my district office in Modesto at 209.576.6425. My staff and I will do our best to assist in any way possible.