A town hall meeting on Wednesday gave business owners the tools and information to defend themselves against frivolous lawsuits based on minor violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Hosted by several Central Valley legislators pushing to reform the disability law, the meeting gave business owners practical advice on becoming ADA compliant. It also gave them hope that proposed changes soon may provide relief to those hit by litigation.
“It’s been a huge problem across the Central Valley and they’re equal opportunity extortionists,” said state Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, who attended the forum. “We want to make it clear, we are for access. This isn’t to hurt the disabled. This is to help businesses comply before they become extorted – which is what’s happening now.”
Hundreds of Central Valley businesses have been slapped with “drive-by” lawsuits from serial plaintiffs, claiming they were denied access because of technical ADA violations. Some of those violations are simple fixes, such as improper parking lot signs, but the cost to businesses is staggering – up to $4,000 per violation, plus attorney’s fees and the costs of repair. The lawsuits have forced many shops to close their doors.
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A series of stories in September by the Sun-Star and The Modesto Bee spotlighted a handful of serial ADA litigants and the growing number of lawsuits in the Valley. An Atwater woman sued 21 businesses in Merced and Stanislaus counties, an Arizona pedophile in a wheelchair targeted 19 businesses, and two Southern California men sued about a dozen.
The spike in ADA lawsuits caught the attention of federal and state lawmakers, with three bipartisan bills introduced recently to modify the Americans with Disabilities Act.
State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Manteca, introduced Senate Bill 67 to “reduce the profit incentive to file frivolous lawsuits based on minor and technical deficiencies.”
Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen of Modesto and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, teamed to author Assembly Bills 52 and 54, companion measures allowing businesses time to fix deficiencies and reducing the cost for violations.
Settling three ADA lawsuits cost Joe Vieira, 48, nearly $20,000, he told the Sun-Star. The San Jose resident attended Wednesday’s forum because he owns property in Turlock. Three of his east San Jose properties were targeted by a serial litigant that has sued hundreds of other businesses.
Vieira said making the repairs on his 1960s-era buildings cost $80,000 to $100,000. “There were all these rumors about being grandfathered in,” Vieira said. “We weren’t compliant, but if it was brought to our attention, we would have fixed it. But the way the law is, it’s sue, sue, sue – these guys just want settlements.”
Kimberly Stone, president of the Civil Justice Association of California in Sacramento, told business owners Wednesday that the best way to protect themselves is to get an evaluation from a certified access specialist every three to six years.
“The only way to avoid an ADA lawsuit is to become compliant,” Stone said. “I don’t want you to be afraid of the next disabled person in your store. The disabled deserve access just like everyone else. But the lawsuits are a money transfer without the enforcement of access.”
Stone said her group has been fighting for more than 10 years to change the law, which she called a “failed public policy.” At least eight bills have been introduced since 2012, but all died before reaching the governor’s desk.
The bills often don’t make it out of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, which is dominated by urban legislators with legal backgrounds. Previous ADA reforms have died in that committee.
“The trial lawyers in that first committee have more clout than the business community, and they kill any bills they don’t like,” Stone told the Sun-Star.
But Stone said she’s optimistic that Valley legislators can make a difference this time. “I feel like for the first time, there is hope. There is more media attention and a large number of high-profile cases.”
Stone has invited business owners to join her at the state Capitol on March 24 to speak to legislators about the importance of reforming the act. For more information, call (916) 443-4900.