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Disability Access Lawsuits Getting Out of Control?

Expert talks lawsuit abuse at Carmichael Chamber lunch.

The well-intended Americans with Disabilities Act law has brought about unintended consequences including lawsuit abuse against small business owners, the head of a citizens group told members on Tuesday.

"Lawyers are taking advantage and closing businesses," Tom Scott, executive director of the California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said during a lunch at . "I want the predatory lawsuits to stop and I want to move the ball on ADA compliance."

Scott, who said he's been following local ADA lawsuits for about 10 years, added that officials from the federal to state and local levels have left ADA enforcement up to trial lawyers. Among the lawyers is Carmichael attorney Scott Johnson, who in October sued five shops in , claiming those businesses didn't have

Johnson, whose name earned a smattering of boos from the business crowd Tuesday, has also sued businesses around the region.

With a bill pending in the California state legislature that would restrict how such lawsuits are filed, disability advocates and legal reform groups are clashing over whether the suits are unnecessarily harmful to businesses. Passed by the Senate in May, SB1186 would give business owners 30 days notice before they're sued and force commercial landlords to notify tenants whether their property has certified disability access.

Under both California and federal law, businesses can be held liable if they didn't provide proper access to disabled customers. Since the 1990 Americans With Disability Act, nearly 30,000 civil lawsuits have been filed for disability access violations.  Businesses in California must pay at least $4,000 per violation if they're found liable under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a state anti-discrimination law.

Reform advocates say many of these lawsuits threaten the livelihoods of well-meaning California business owners who aren't experts on disability access laws.

"If we don't stop these lawyers and shut down the abuse that's occurring... then I can't support the bill," Scott said. "You've got to shut down state and federal avenues (of filing lawsuits) for these guys."

Do feel like businesses should have more notice before ADA lawsuits are filed? Tell us in a comment below.

Jaker Bee June 27, 2012 at 09:53 PM
While there appears to be a burden, it's actually more about awareness of customers and the needs they have to get in a store and buy a product. I doubt any business would ignore 20 percent of its customer base. There are tax incentives for small businesses to meet ADA compliance requirements, including accessible parking and entrances. They would not apply if the business owner disregarded building codes and/or standards.
Sharon Toji June 28, 2012 at 06:07 AM
Thank you, Jaker Bee! My answer to the question posed above, is, do you consider 20 years enough notice? And, as a small business person myself, I don't know of any other of the many laws I must comply with, where ignorance is a defense. If I don't understand our complex tax laws, for instance, I had better hire someone to help with my taxes who does understand them, or bear the consequences. Even a small business can get a tax benefit of up to almost half the expense of removing barriers, and this benefit is repeated every year. It has been made clear from Day One (January 26, 1992), that barrier removal can be completed very gradually, one small step at a time, as budget and practical considerations allow. For instance, if you door step goes right up to the public sidewalk, you are not forced, obviously, to build a ramp over the public right of way. You might, instead, install a buzzer or a two-way speaker to take orders from the entrance. Or, if you have a rear entrance, even though it might be through a storage area, you would be allowed to offer it as an alternate accessible entrance. If you have a tiny cafe with a mezzanine seating area, you don't have to take up most of your dining space with an elevator or lift. Neither do you have to do without those additional seats, if they are necessary to earning enough money to afford keeping your doors open. However, you would only open the mezzanine for overflow, and use your accessible ground level seating for most times.
M Caramico July 02, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Response Part 1 I suppose that the comment made by Mr. Scott is acceptable to many but not to me. ""You've got to shut down state and federal avenues (of filing lawsuits) for these guys." This comment smacks of bigotry. Yes, I understand he may be speaking of the attorneys that file the lawsuits he is complaining about and not the disabled. But, the inference to the disabled is there. Many people also forget that the ADA of 1990 is not where access for the disabled began but the UNRUH Act of the 60's is too. So...how many years does everyone need. Let's start holding accountable the individuals and firms that could be making a difference to the small business community and the disabled too because they would be able to live integrated lives. The ones that need to be held accountable are the Chambers of Commerce and new licensing departments of governmental agencies. Chambers of Commerce claim to fame is that they are a social outlet for the business community responsible for networking. Is this where they should stop? I don't think it should be that way. Members of the Chamber should be educated on what is required of them pertaining to the laws that can directly affect them and the public they serve. Also, new business licensing departments should also be held accountable. They charge fees for the services they provide so what benefits are they really receiving for those fees?
M Caramico July 02, 2012 at 06:08 PM
Part 2 The ADA is not where individuals are being awarded damages from. The ADA has no damages clause. If they wish to address the issue of damages then they need to start addressing where those damages are stemming from and not attempting to dismantle the civil rights law that the last class of protected individuals in this country were granted.

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