Recently the cities of Manteca, Ripon and Tracy among others have seen a sharp rise in the number of lawsuits from out of town lawyers targeting local businesses for allegedly violating portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many of these are small, family-owned businesses who are ill-equipped to afford the vast legal fees to fight a professional trial lawyer and have been forced to shut down. It is a problem that has been growing for years, especially here in the Valley and most acutely in minority and immigrant communities where lawyers target those who learned English as a second language or are new to this country and therefore have a limited familiarity with the American legal system.
These lawsuits are driven by lawyers who often file "drive-by" lawsuits in which business owners are informed their businesses are outside of ADA compliance. The lawyers then demand a payment, often of several thousand dollars, to make the lawsuit go away. Lawyers target small businesses across the state with shakedown lawsuits, leaving businesses struggling to pay litigation costs and make the necessary changes in the allotted time. Businesses often have no idea they are in violation of the law until they are hit with a lawsuit, and anyone who has dealt with a contractor knows how expensive and complex improving a building can be.
The current ADA and state laws sadly encourage these "drive-by lawsuits" by unscrupulous lawyers, who are more interested in lining their pockets with cash settlements than in improving access for the disabled. Sometimes, they go so far as to use fake plaintiffs to file their suits. In the current economy, small business owners
I've co-sponsored two bills to help protect small business owners from fraudulent ADA lawsuits. The first, called the ACCESS Act, will provide potential victims of abusive ADA lawsuits a chance to fix the alleged violation before a lawsuit can move forward. For example, if a complaint is filed, the recipient will have 60 days to respond to it. If something needs to be fixed, the recipient will have 120 more days to fix it.
The second, the ADA Notification Act of 2013, provides business owners sufficient time to evaluate and correct potential ADA violations before costly litigation starts. It gives them at least 90 days from the time they receive notification of possible ADA violations to make the necessary improvements to their facilities before legal action can begin.
I believe every small business should at least be given the opportunity to follow the law and fix any problems before a lawsuit can move forward. I will continue to work with concerned groups like Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) to educate the public and push through needed reforms at the state and federal level. In the coming months I will also be holding workshops in partnership with CALA to share response tactics with small business owners facing these kinds of lawsuits.
Our state needs to create jobs, not lawsuits, and reforming our ADA laws to protect small business owners from these types of shakedown lawsuits will do just that.