Democrats Kill Abusive Lawsuit Bill
By KATY GRIMES
There have been several bills in the last few years authored to stop lawyers who file frivilous lawsuits and shakedown businesses for not having “adequate” Americans With Disabilities Act handicapped accessibility. Or who have access issues deemed “not adequate enough.”
Sen. Bob Dutton (R-Inland Empire) reports that emergency legislation which would have stopped these predatory lawyers from filing frivolous lawsuits against small businesses was killed by Democrats during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on July 5.
Democratic legislators are well known friends of trial lawyers, and receive 97 percent of all trial lawyer political contributions.
While Dutton’s bill honored the ADA laws already in place, Dutton said, “Senate Bill 783 would have required the owner of a property to be notified of an Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) violation before a lawsuit could be filed.” The property owner would have had 120 days to fix the violation. If the violation(s) was not fixed within the timeframe, a lawsuit would then be allowed to move forward.”
California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse reports, “the Americans with Disabilities Act was meant to increase access for disabled people, but a few unscrupulous personal injury lawyers and professional plaintiffs have made fortunes by targeting businesses for shake down lawsuits. Oftentimes these lawsuits are filed when access has not been deterred in any way. These lawsuits don’t ask for any accessibility improvements to be made, they ask for money to make the lawsuit go away.”
The intent of ADA laws was to make sure that retail and public businesses made the appropriate changes to accommodate handicapped persons in bathrooms, at public counters, in parking lots and garages, restaurants and the like.
However, the law has been so grossly abused that business owners are instead the victims of barely legal shakedowns.
I have followed Scott Johnson for several years, a quadriplegic Sacramento ADA lawyer notorious for his ruthless shakedowns of tiny businesses, including a local veterinarian, Sacramento area gas stations, an historic hamburger hangout and numerous other restaurants. Johnson has more than 1,000 lawsuits under his belt.
Johnson has defended his activity and claims to be “an agent of change for the rights of the disabled.” He usually “settles” cases for $4,000 and $6,000.
The typical Johnson approach is to send a letter to a business which states that the business must become ADA compliant. Johnson gives the business formal notice to make changes to the property, or offers to settle with Johnson monetarily to prevent a lawsuit — the shakedown part.
For businesses unaware of the guidelines, or which were compliant at one time and are now unaware of changes to the ADA guidelines, Johnson’s letters are a total shock and very costly.
In addition to paying Johnson off, many of Johnson’s victim businesses end up paying thousands of dollars in expensive remodeling to bathrooms; for entrance and exit doors; and for re-paving and painting parking lots, changing signage, or even having to install expensive wheelchair ramps.
The Squeeze Inn, an historic Sacramento hamburger spot, ended up closing its doors in 2009 because the funky building — with only 12 barstools at a counter — couldn’t be remodeled to accommodate wheelchair access.
Kimberly Block sued The Squeeze Inn and claimed she suffered “embarrassment and humiliation” and that her civil rights were violated because she could not fit her wheelchair inside the restaurant. Her lawsuit against The Squeeze Inn was the third ADA lawsuit she filed that year.
Anyone driving up to The Squeeze Inn would instantly recognize that the building looked more like an outhouse than a restaurant, and did a fantastic take-out business. But the size apparently made it easy fodder for the litigious.
Jason Singleton, Block’s attorney and another notorious Sacramento ADA lawyer identified as one of the top ADA lawsuit filers in California, has shut down many restaurants with these ADA lawsuits.
The owners of The Squeeze Inn made every attempt to accommodate patrons, and would deliver orders right to the car upon request. They reopened down the street, but their new location is no longer in a funky building, which was part of the ambiance. However, reports that their burgers are as good as ever must be true, since they have several locations now.
Dutton’s bill sought to stop this lawsuit abuse while maintaining the integrity of the ADA laws as well as compliance.
There are hundreds of lawyers just like Johnson and Singleton in every county throughout California, preying on small business owners while earning a substantial living.
“These lawyers are committing what amounts to extortion on the business community and hiding behind the ADA laws as justification,” said Dutton after the hearing. “They are an embarrassment to their profession. They are not serving the needs of the ADA community and, ultimately, they are killing jobs in California. This problem will not go away and I hope the majority party will work with me to find a solution to this serious issue.”
Democratic Senators Mark Leno (San Francisco), Noreen Evans (Santa Rosa) and Ellen Corbett (San Leandro) were the deciding votes killing the bill in the Judiciary committee. All three senators have received sizable campaign contributions from trial lawyers, and lawyers are listed as the “Top 10 interests Funding” on each of their campaign contribution pages (click on the Senator’s name to see contributions at Maplight.org).
Dutton, on the other hand, does not have lawyers listed in his top 10 list of funders.
Larry Venus, Dutton’s Press Secretary, said that next year they will introduce the bill again and are hopeful that Democrats will work with them. Democrats never offered amendments to Dutton’s bill, reported Venus, nor did they offer to even work with Dutton on it.
Meanwhile, busy ADA lawyers will be allowed to shake down more California businesses for another year in an already failing state, listed as the worst place in the country to do business.
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