Reports Angus Loten in the WSJ:
Small-business owners face a growing number of disabled-access lawsuits in the wake of a recent appeals-court ruling giving rise to disabled “testers,” as well as the release of detailed federal specifications for curb ramps, self-opening doors and other standards.
…A November 2013 decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in a case against Marod Supermarkets found that someone who isn’t necessarily a patron could be a “tester” of disabled-access compliance. That cleared the way for individual plaintiffs to bring dozens, even hundreds, of lawsuits against multiple businesses, as serial testers….
The litigation upswing also follows the Justice Department’s release of a set of compliance standards for the 24-year-old federal disability law. Those standards, which came into force in March 2012, include detailed specifications for long-standing requirements, such as the allowable slope of a wheelchair ramp and the exact height of towel dispensers in accessible restrooms. They also introduced a new requirement for hotels with pools to provide a “pool lift” for disabled guests, which went into effect last year.
Some business owners say the lawsuits accomplish little more than providing revenue to attorneys. …
We warned about the pool-lift requirement multiple times. The article reports that plaintiffs are filing multiple suits against hotels in Florida for not having the lifts; along with Florida, California and New York account for a high share of all accessibility actions against local businesses and retailers, in part because of favorable state and city laws that increase complainants’ legal and financial leverage.
The Sacramento Bee editorializes against the state’s well-established ADA racket, which has been going for many years now and is not being cleaned up through legislative reform because too many people find financial or ideological advantage in keeping things the way they are:
California law puts a $4,000 fine on each violation and directed the proceeds to “aggrieved” parties, even if they weren’t harmed or inconvenienced by the violation. A business could be sued for faded paint on an open handicapped parking spot, a ramp 2 degrees too steep, incorrect wording on a sign. A practiced eye can spot half a dozen violations most anywhere, and that’s a $24,000 jackpot for a scammer. …
ADA rules change constantly. Two years ago, signs next to handicapped parking spaces had to read “No parking.” Now, signs must warn that the fine is $250. That’s not a barrier to a disabled person, but still could be treated like one when it comes to fines. That’s ridiculous. If a business owner hasn’t put up a new sign, he should be given an opportunity to fix it before having to pay some lawyer $4,000.
In an update on ADA filing mills more than two years ago we noted the case of Alfredo Garcia, one of the busy class of serial plaintiffs who’ve sued hundreds of California businesses demanding money for accommodations violations, often represented by attorney Morse Mehrban, a longtime Overlawyered favorite. Garcia has also been described as an “illegal immigrant and convicted felon,” and KABC Los Angeles says that after filing more than 800 lawsuits, Garcia has actually been deported:
Based on previously disclosed settlements, Eyewitness News can estimate that Garcia has collected approximately $1.2 million from business owners since he began filing lawsuits in 2007.
At the same time, Garcia applies for and receives fee waivers from the courts by claiming he is too poor to pay the court fees associated with the lawsuits. That means taxpayers pick up the tab. …
[By 2010] he’d sued more than 500 businesses, including La Casita Mexicana in Bell. The restaurant owners were able to prove that Garcia had not been at their restaurant on the dates he claimed to have been there.
California law provides unusually favorable financial rewards for ADA complaints, and the state’s legislature has largely ignored years’ worth of pleas from small businesses for relief from serial complainants. So John Perez is no longer taking walk-in customers [Manteca Bulletin]:
Ever since Carmichael-based lawyer Scott Johnson slapped civil rights lawsuits against at least 21 Manteca businesses seeking punitive damages for allegedly being out of compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act access rules he’s been locking the front door to his South Main Street cabinet shop, Perez & Sons.
Johnson (earlier on him here and here) has announced his intent to sue The Hair Company for at least $68,000 although owner Janice Ward says none of her handicapped customers have ever complained. “A good number of the targets of Johnson’s 3,000 lawsuits throughout Northern California over the years have been forced out of business.”
The NBC affiliate in the Bay Area investigates “what some say is legalized extortion” (watch out for annoying can’t-mute, can’t-freeze auto-play ad). The report “reviewed more than 10,000 federal ADA lawsuits filed since 2005 in the five states with the highest disabled populations. More lawsuits have been filed in California than Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and New York combined.” Among violations charged: “a mirror that was hung 1.5 inches too high, a disabled access emblem that was ‘not the correct size,’ and one that was ‘not at the correct height on a restroom door.’ …’Given the way the building codes change as often as they do, it’s virtually impossible [to be in full compliance]‘ certified access specialist Christina Stevens said.”
Many of them aren’t so nice, especially in California which incentivizes access complaints with $4,000 minimum per-violation damages as well as entitlement to attorney’s fees. “According to [defense attorney James] Link, more than 3,000 ADA lawsuits were filed in L.A. County in the last three years — more than 1,700 of them by attorneys Morse Mehrban of L.A. and Mark Potter of San Diego’s Center for Disability Access.” One of Potter’s prolific clients, Jon Alexander, formerly of Utah, might displace George Louie as the poster guy for controversial ADA litigants. [L.A. Weekly via Doherty]
Never mind the colorful if creepy harassment allegations lodged by four former staffers. For purposes of the future of California-based ADA filing mills, the more salient allegation against attorney Johnson is that he cut improper corners in his assembly-line generation of accessibility complaints. [The Recorder, ABA Journal, earlier]
New York Post:
Wheelchair-riding Linda Slone, 64, is suing 39 shops in her neighborhood for not being handicapped-accessible.
The legal crusade is netting her thousands, but Slone, who cannot walk because of polio, insists she is simply championing the rights of the disabled.
“If you think this is a money-making scheme, you’re dead wrong,” said Slone, a speech pathologist.
The Florida-based Weitz Law Firm, which represents Slone, “also represents Zoltan Hirsch, a Brooklyn double amputee who The Post revealed last year filed 147 suits citing the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Scott Greenfield wonders what the brownstones of Columbus Avenue will look like by the time the shopowners and landlords somehow manage to completely ADA-proof them.
The Northern California municipality will pay notorious serial ADA filer George Louie $15,000 in exchange for which he promises not to sue any more businesses within town limits, and drop current suits in that category. Of course he’ll go elsewhere instead. [CBS Sacramento, Sacramento Bee, Lowering the Bar] On Louie’s background, see this 2003 post.
AP: “SB1186 by Democratic Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and Republican Sen. Bob Dutton would ban so-called ‘demand letters’ in which lawyers threaten to sue over a violation unless a business pays a set amount. It also would require attorneys to give businesses notice before filing a lawsuit.” Sacramento Bee: “A key element of SB 1186 is that potential damages for disability access violations would drop from a minimum of $4,000 to much less, $2,000 in some cases, $1,000 in others, if the defendant corrected violations very quickly.” The damages would still remain higher than are available in most states, however, and “one-way” attorney fee shifts would remain available. The bill would also restrict “stacking” of multiple damage demands based on repeat visits to premises before the suit is heard. More: The Recorder.
We’ve been covering the disgrace of California access litigation for years and years. Because large sums will still be recoverable under the new rules, I expect the industry of complaint-filing will continue in some form, even if it becomes somewhat less lucrative.
At Cato at Liberty, I write about how the Hollywood great’s experiences as a small businessman in California — in particular his encounters with abusive litigation and with the lawyers and politicians who decline to do anything about it — might shed some light on his much-talked-about speech last night before the Republican National Convention.
P.S. My 2008 post on lawyers who become presidents. Reason on Eastwood’s libertarian politics, and not to forget his views on gay marriage (“Just give everybody the chance to have the life they want.”)
Banks’ failure to comply with automatic-teller accessibility rules could open up a “goldmine for professional plaintiffs,” thinks Kevin Funnell. [Bank Lawyers' Blog] More: Cohen/Atlas.