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Top 10 — No. 5: ADA lawsuits attack local businesses

By From page A1 | January 07, 2013

A blitz of threatened lawsuits and demands for money for alleged Americans With Disabilites violations by attorney and quadriplegic Scott Johnson blanketed the Tahoe/ Camino/Pollock Pines/Placerville businesses toward the end of 2011. By the winter of 2012, small businesses faced the choice of paying up and fixing up. Some of them, like Pony Espresso in Pollock Pines, felt they had no choice but to close their doors.

Johnson, who has sued more than 2,100 businesses for ADA violations, claimed monetary damages in the amount of $4,000 per violation. Many businesses in old, historic buildings or on tiny lots couldn’t meet all the state and federal ADA standards; some thought they were compliant according to state building codes and still others simply couldn’t afford, in the current economy, to make the necessary improvements. In addition, differences between state and federal ADA standards led to confusion about compliance and were exploited by Johnson because California law allows monetary damages for ADA violations.

In March, the Community Economic Development Association of Pollock Pines met with El Dorado County supervisors Norma Santiago and Ray Nutting and representatives from Californians Against Lawsuit Abuse to combat the lawsuits through legislative action. Spearheaded by Tim Roffe of EDC Against Lawsuit Abuse, El Dorado County residents and business owners bombarded state legislators with letters. Roffe represented El Dorado County at state Senate committee hearings and with Senator Dianne Feinstein.

In April, California State Senator Ted Gaines and Assemblywoman Beth Gaines sponsored a well-attended workshop in Placerville to answer questions about how to resolve or avoid ADA lawsuits. David Peters, CEO of Lawyers Against Lawsuit Abuse walked the audience through the misconceptions and main compliance issues that often lead to lawsuits. Peters advised business owners to hire a Certified Public Access Specialist to inventory their business property for ADA violations and to develop a plan to address the violations immediately.

The campaign of letter writing, social media, media reports and physical presence at the state capitol paid off by attracting the interest of Senator  Feinstein and alerting state legislators to the seriousness of the problem. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB1186 into law. The bill was designed to reduce predatory lawsuits and increase the likelihood of business compliance with ADA requirements. Demands for money by threatening lawsuits are prohibited. Attorneys must now send a written advisory of each violation to business/property owners, with copies of each letter to the California State Bar. Businesses with less than 25 employees without a CASp insection are allowed 30 days to fix violations before being liable for court damages.

“This is a step in the right direction, but  we do need to do more,” said Roffe. “The big lesson that I think should be noted here is that we can make a difference.”

In August, four former employees filed a sexual harassment against Scott Johnson. Part of the complaint alleges that Johnson never entered many of the businesses he sued for ADA non-compliance.

Wendy Schultz

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