Wednesday, April 23, 2014
PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

ADA attorney sweeps area

CLOSED — Jill Thurston, co-owner of the Pony Expresso on Pony Express Trail in Pollock Pines  carries a box of coffee flavorings to her car last month. The business owners, Jill and Harry were forced out of their business by an ADA attorney. Democrat file photo by Pat Dollins

Jill Thurston, co-owner of the Pony Expresso on Pony Express Trail in Pollock Pines carries a box of coffee flavorings to her car Friday. The business owners, Jill and Harry were forced out of their business by an ADA attorney. Democrat photo by Pat Dollins

By
From page A1 | March 14, 2012 | 13 Comments

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act was a good idea — making sure that all people, including those with disabilities have access to services and businesses — but the interpretation of the regulations in states like California that award monetary damages for ADA violations has created an abundant income for some and economic crisis for others — not the intent of the law.

Carmichael attorney and quadriplegic Scott Johnson recently blanketed Tahoe area, Pollock Pines, Camino and Placerville businesses and property owners with federal lawsuits citing violations of ADA laws and claiming monetary damages of $4,000 for each actual visit and each “deterred, foregone” visit.

Business owners, many of whom thought they were ADA compliant, are frightened. In the current economy some can’t afford to remodel or even to hire an attorney to represent them in a federal lawsuit. Others have old buildings on tiny lots that don’t lend themselves to the needed modification. They accommodate people with disabilities by moving furniture or in any way they can. Some property owners haven’t addressed the compliance issue at all. Few know what tools and options are available to save their businesses and still accommodate people with disabilities.

So, many businesses settle out of court by paying damages and hoping Johnson goes away. With their money in his pocket, he does go away, but he or another disabled person could come back if the violations are not corrected.

In a phone interview with the Mountain Democrat, Johnson described his actions: “I’m changing the way California does business, one ramp at a time.”

Johnson, 47, one of the busiest “frequent filers” in California, was one of the subjects of a Sacramento Bee series in 2006 about the issue of ADA lawsuits. While he does file lawsuits on behalf of other disabled people, Johnson said the majority are filed with himself as the plaintiff. He receives the monetary damages and with almost 1,100 lawsuits, at $4,000 for each visit, the pennies stack up to more than $4 million.

Pollock Pines resident Kerry Richman is subject to seizures and her service dog accompanies her everywhere.

“When I first moved here, people weren’t used to seeing a dog in a restaurant or the grocery store. I had to educate them, even my dentist. It’s a community with very few disabled people. But what Scott Johnson is doing makes me sick. The ADA Act was designed to get businesses to comply — not to shut them down. I educate, I don’t sue.”

Why don’t businesses comply?

It’s been more than 20 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect, so why are some businesses still not in compliance? Part of the problem may lie in the discrepancies between the California Building Code accessibility laws and the federal ADA laws.

“When we inspect a building, it’s according to California Building Code and the accessibility laws,” said John Brownlee, Placerville building inspector. “California accessibility laws are almost the same as the federal ADA laws — in some cases more stringent.”

Neither the state nor the local building agencies are legally allowed to enforce any ADA provisions that they know are more stringent than California’s Title 24, according to the California Disabled Accessibility Guidebook. At times, the differences are of a degree or an inch — inches that Johnson with his team of assistants take full advantage of.

In order for a business to be absolutely sure they are in compliance with federal ADA regulations, the Placerville Planning Department often recommends the business owner hire a Certified Access Specialist who will come out to the business to identify areas of non-compliance and explain what needs to be done.

“If you’ve hired a Certified Access Specialist (CASp) to do a survey and you’ve developed a plan of action and are taking steps to become in compliance, that stops the lawsuits,” said Brownlee. “There’s no timeline on when all the compliance issues have to be resolved, but there’s also no out on ADA compliance. It applies to government buildings and multi-family residences like apartments as well. Even historical buildings are only partially exempt.”

Johnson agrees about CASp.“The best insurance against a lawsuit is to have a CASp certification. It’s a tool that’s grossly underutilized by businesses. I’ve never sued a single business with a CASp certification. I didn’t put Pony Expresso out of business. They could have relocated in a compliant building or made the modifications which would have only come to about $200.”

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 13 comments

  • CaMomMarch 13, 2012 - 11:37 am

    This man, Mr. Johnson, is despicable. He's not at all interested in the human beings with disabilities who want to access businesses - he's only interested in lining his own pockets. I've heard that he didn't even personally visit our area, he has employees (not in wheelchairs) to do his legwork for him. Coward. Having a son in a wheelchair, we've met some obstacles over the last 5 years. But I've found that if businesses are made aware of issues, and offered suggestions to make them right, they're usually more than willing to do what needs to be done. And ultimately, if a business refuses to comply, people can make their point with their wallets. If my son can't get into a business or be served comfortably, I obviously won't frequent that establishment, with or without him. And neither will the rest of our family nor many friends. If that happens often enough, a business will clearly see that it's to their benefit to make their building as comfortable as possible for the disabled.

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  • SodaWerksMarch 13, 2012 - 11:53 am

    The question MtD asks is not answered. "Why don' businesses comply". Businesses do not comply because of greed. So fight greed with greed. Builduing owners have had 20 years to get buildings in compliance but they have refused. During the boom years with the economy would have been a good time to upgrade the business or building to ADA compliance, but they did not. Based on the article written by the MtD of Scott's recent visit to Pollock, only shows that Pollock businesses do NOT want disabled people at their businesses. As well, based on the article it appears that the MtD does not like disabled people either. Looks like we need to go inside the MtD building and find the ADA violations and file a suit against the MtD. Let's see if that forces the MtD out of business. In fact there is such disdain towards disabled people and ADA compliance in EDC that none of the City goverment buildings are up to code. City Hall in Placerville is NOT ADA compliant, the court house on Main St is NOT ADA compliant, 98% of the buildings on Main St in Placerville are NOT ADA compliant (historical building or not), the Community Center in Pollock, where this Thursday Pollock is holding a "bitch" session about disabled people and ADA compliant is NOT ADA compliant. I can just see a bunch of us in our chairs showing up for that meeting and suing CDAP for using a non-compliant building. The roads in Placerville, specifically on Main St are in such disrepair, they are NOT ADA complaint. If anything I have learned is that if the people lead, the government will follow, but if the local authorities are not ADA compliant, what example does that set for the rest of the businesses in Placerville? We need to sit on City Hall's footsteps and force the issue that the City is not above the law and must comply with ADA legislation.

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  • david warrenMarch 13, 2012 - 11:56 am

    Where are our state legislatures on both sides of the Isle? This abuse of the ADA has gone on far too long. Judgements on a suit like his should not go to him period. Especially when he hasn't even rolled his ##! into the businesses.These abusive lawsuits have to stop and our leaders need to step up!

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  • SodaWerksMarch 13, 2012 - 1:49 pm

    for those interested in dialog (not a bitch session) but dialog on the issues, try this link - http://www.inedc.com/ - there is a lot more news regading EDC, good articles, well written and fair in writing commentaries. These is a much better option to discuss than the MtD. The Mt.D based on this article is bias.

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  • Beautiful Rainbow TroutMarch 13, 2012 - 4:41 pm

    Early Am, Try not to use such a big hook dear, you might have a better result. Or you can just talk to me.

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  • Sharon TojiMarch 14, 2012 - 6:43 am

    Thank you, Ms Schulz for a balanced article. Thank you, Mr. Brownlee for understanding that California does have, indeed, for the most part standards that are actually more stringent than the ADA Guidelines. CaMom: you speak for your son, but many people with disabilities are trying to get around on their own. They want to be independent, and to go where they want to do business. Mr. Warren: Our legislature already passed a bill several years ago that made it possible for a business to hire one of the over 400 licensed "CASps" and learn exactly what barriers they needed to remove. That also gets them time to start on the process without the threat of a lawsuit on their heads. As a small business person I can tell you that you are obliged to follow many complicated laws, and no one gives you a pass on them for not knowing about them or understanding them. People with disabilities waited, on the whole, for many years after 1992, when the law took effect, before they gave up, and started to bring lawsuits. I am not disabled myself, but I have left many comments on comment cards, or have spoken to managers about ADA infractions. One time I got an offer of a five dollar off certificate! Normally, the answer is either a polite "I'll pass it on," or sadly, "when someone sues us, we'll consider doing it." I know people who have copies of over 100 letters they have written. Usually, they never get an answer. My suggestion is, that if you have a business, first check your parking. It doesn't cost much to stripe it correctly, and get signs that are correct. Check your entrance. If there is a step, but you have another entrance that is OK, then put up a clear sign that directs people to the second entrance. If not, put up a sign asking people to press a buzzer or call, and you will provide curbside service. Then make it clear that you are taking proactive steps to providing a better solution. Take advantage of the CASp program (call the California Division of the State Architect or go on line to www.DSA.ca.gov to get a list. There are CASps in your area. Check into the tax credits. From day one, the IRS has offered substantial credits, which can be used each year, for the gradual removal of barriers. As we get older, many of us acquire disabilities. We may not have had to encounter the prejudice that people with life-long disabilities have had to endure, but we still have difficulty walking, seeing and hearing clearly. If you want us to keep on being your customers, following the ADA standards will be a good business move.

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  • jriordanMarch 14, 2012 - 2:26 pm

    In my opinion, as a handicapped person myself, CA Mom has the right attitude. If this scumsucking bottom feeder Johnson really wanted to help the disabled as he claims, he would use his brain, if he has one, to piece together the federal and CA laws in an easy to understand package that could be given to small businesses ALONG WITH a list of corrections needed and instructions on how to implement them. He could then HELP them with the CASp program and provide info on the tax incentives that could make implementation easier. That would help the handicapped. With the alleged millions he has already aquired, he could easily live off that money and then use his time and his "assistants" to truly help people . . . . But he doesn't want to help anyone, just line his pockets. This mindless reptile lurks in the shadows and, in my opinion, extorts millions of dollars, and in most cases, leaves business owners unaware that the very next day, week etc., some other vulture can stop by and repeat the "extortion". The only thing he has really accomplished is to make most business owners distrustful or less caring of handicapped persons, the majority of whom are NOT sue-ers (or is it sewers). Disabled veterans who have given all they had or most of what they had, and are disabled for life should receive all the help we can give them. I would be willing to bet that they are in the absolute minority of the sewers and would rather seek assistance than drive someone out of business. This morning I looked into the requirements to become a CASp certified inspector to see if I could offer my services AT NO COST to local business owners and leave them with a simplified plan of action. What I found out was that a person would need either architectural or structural engineering education and work experience in that area in order to become a CASp. My background was mechanical engineering. I also found that a CASp certification does not PREVENT lawsuits, just postpones them and can still require an owner to complete certain work within 90 days whether the business could afford it or not. So it would not be of as much help to small businesses as I had wished. I now believe we need some fundamental changes in the combining of state and fed codes and some easier to understand compliance requirements that the average small business owner can understand and complete themselves. . . .In checking with some of the CASPs, the average cost of an inspection is $900 to well over $1000. To me this is BS and should be provided by the building departments and code enforcement agencies . . . let 'em earn their licensing dollars. I wish I could reverse the injuries or conditions for everyone in a wheelchair . . . except bloodsuckers like Johnson. I am ok with the fact that all the money Johnson, in my opinion , "extorts", won't do a damn thing to fix HIS condition. He does not deserve it. When Johnson stated, (Pony Espresso) "could have relocated in a compliant building or made the changes which would have only come out to about $200", that is pure BS. Now he is putting himself forth as an accountant who knew their financial condition? Or is he also a licensed architect or contractor who is knowlegdeable about construction costs? What a crock. I suppose he is forgetting about his $4,000 "extortion costs. Pollock Pines resident Kerry Richman, I salute you for your attitude of "educate, not sue." . . . I wish the CASp certification had been within my reach, but unfortunately it is not. I would not have charged business owners in El Dorado County for my services. To Scott Johnson I say, "I will now go an earn some honest dollars". . . .too bad you won't but at least you will never be able to take "full advantage" of your ill gotten gains . . . and pretty soon you won't be welcome anywhere.

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  • SodaWerksMarch 14, 2012 - 2:37 pm

    If you were really a PWD - you would not be using the word "handicapped" - unless you really feel you are a second-class citizen. I was not borned into my disability, I obtained it later in years by a drunk driver who ran a red light and hit me in the intersection, having been on "both sides" of the issue, there is nothing illegal or wrong that Mr. Johnson is doing, distasteful, but again, I have to keep asking, why do businesses/building owners keep putting themselves into this situation? I have learn the hard way of the discrimination of PWD by able-bodied people, and from the posts of the community in this issue on this website, only solidifies the discrimination. If able-bodied people were not discriminating, then they would be embracing the ADA compliance issues.

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  • jriordanMarch 14, 2012 - 3:35 pm

    Sodaworks . . . . .So sorry PWD, . . . Don't even try to to tell me what "words I would or would not be using" . . . .my "handicapped" placard says just that , it does not say PWD. I have never felt like a second class citizen. Sorry you got hit. I earned mine in two plane crashes (not my fault) and 25 broken bones so I too have been on both sides of the issue and while what Johnson does may not be "illegal", it is in my opinion unethical at best. I find it odd that you keep bringing up "discrimination" as though people are seeking you out to pick on you. I suggest you forget your obsession with PWD Vs Handicapped as though there is a difference, and remember that two wrongs do not make a right. This guy is no saviour for "PWDS" . . . the truth is he and his ilk are the ones who are muddying the waters such that YOU are now perhaps placed in the same class as this puke when you walk into a business. Can't you see that? . . . The more people your saviour sues, the more "discrimination" will be created and the more you will be exposed to. . . . but not by me, ever. So don't try to paint me in that corner . . I'm not there.

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  • Evelyn VeerkampMarch 14, 2012 - 3:36 pm

    SodaWerks: I'm sorry about your disability and it's cause. And I understand that descriptors ("handicapped" v. "disabled") have for you - and undoubtedly for many others - particular meanings. However, I do not believe that those who use words not of own your choice are meaning any disrespect. We just haven't learned "the vocabulary". I, for example, understand "disabled" to mean "absence of ability", and not for one second do I believe you have no ability. Clearly you have many abilities. In my mind "handicapped" means "impaired ability", the more apt descriptor. While in terms of legalese you may be correct, descent into semantics detracts from the main issue.

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  • jriordanMarch 14, 2012 - 4:04 pm

    Evelyn, well written, thank you. I believe it most important to think of yourself as a "person". So I can't do all the things, actually most of the things, I used to do, I will never sit in a corner and feel "discriminated against". I believe we must just do the best we can with what we have, both for ourselves and others. I find it odd that just because I am against suing businesses in the manner that Johnson does, and makes an unjust living at, that those feelings can be twisted into somehow "discriminating" against the very group of people of whom I am a member . . . .no matter what word one may use to describe us.

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  • Richard FullerMarch 15, 2012 - 5:50 pm

    Over ten years ago I purchased a small restaurant building in Carmichael, CA. My parking lot did not have the properly marked handicapped space. I was not aware of the legal requirements. Mr Johnson apparently visited the building but did not announce himself. Instead he did not extend me the courtesy to inform me of the requirement. Rather he sent me a threatening letter asking for a payment to him of several thousand dollars for his "pain and suffering". As soon as I became aware of the requirement, I made the necessary modifications to the parking lot. This did not stop his letters asking for the payment. So I took him to small claims court. He showed up in his wheelchair, and made a tearful (really) presentation to the judge who ruled against him. I got out to the court parking lot just in time to see him drive away in his brand new state of the art handicapped van. I am sorry to hear he is still getting away with his scam.

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  • theminesweeperMarch 22, 2012 - 9:26 pm

    It's interesting that sodaworks is defending this guy so vehemently and that he became disabled by a drunk driver as that's how Scott Johnson became disabled, too. Richard Fuller, good for you for fighting this scumbag. He needs to spend more time in counseling sessions rather than sitting in front of Google Earth, to start getting over his anger and depression issues from being disabled.

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