State Legislator Battles ‘Serial Filers’ Who Exploit Disability Act Infractions

by Andria Borba and Abigail Sterling

SACRAMENTO (KPIX) — Filing a lawsuit to protest lack of disabled access to a retail store is perfectly understandable but what about filing thousands? KPIX discovered one such “serial filer” is currently wreaking havoc in the Bay Area.

Dominic Speno said that — without warning — last year the Best Western hotel in Patterson that he owns was slapped with a lawsuit for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Among the alleged violations: A pull-out counter for disabled clients at the reception desk that wasn’t clearly marked and a table in the way of the elevator call button.

“The depth of it was a tenth of an inch out of compliance,” said Speno.

Speno recognized the name of the plaintiff. It was Scott Johnson, a disabled lawyer with a dubious distinction: he’s one of the most prolific filers of ADA lawsuits in California and, possibly, the nation.

KPIX found more than 2,000 cases filed by Johnson in federal court, going back to 2004.

In just the last six months, federal filings show Johnson has focused on the Bay Area, suing 166 businesses in San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Campbell, Cupertino, Los Gatos, Concord, Martinez, Danville and Pleasant Hill.

“In the last 6 months I have seen more ADA cases than ever before,” said attorney Erica Rosasco. She has represented many of the small businesses that Johnson has targeted.

She says Johnson has been operating a cottage industry out of his home office in Carmichael, hiring full-time employees to go on 10-to-15 “drive-bys” a day, checking on the compliance of properties.

“They will run into your business, get out their ruler and their camera, take measurements, snap pictures and run back out. And I have had people call the police on them not knowing what the heck was going on,” said Rosasco.

She says under California law plaintiffs in ADA lawsuits have a right to $4,000 dollars per visit, making the state fertile ground for serial filers like Johnson.

“What he says is I want $4,000 for all nine times I came here, even though you didn’t even know that I came here,” said Rosasco.

Lawmakers in Sacramento have made several attempts to pass new laws aimed at discouraging serial filers, including one introduced this year.

“We have to give businesses a chance to make right,” said Assemblyman Devon Mathis.

Mathis’ bill, AB150, would give small businesses of 50 or fewer employees six months to fix an ADA violation before they can get sued.

“I’m a disabled veteran, I have a son born with spina bifida. The world they exist in is hard enough but to go after every single mom-and-pop business just to make a buck is wrong,” said Mathis.

The disabled community is pushing back.

“We can’t write a law that says you can’t practice, you can’t do what you want to do, because there are constitutional protections,” said Ruthee Goldkorn, president of Californians for Disability Rights.

Goldkorn opposes any legislative fix.

“They feel they have to change the law by punishing 15 million people because half a dozen lawyers with maybe a dozen paid plaintiffs are running around and ruining it for everyone,” she said.

We asked her about a couple of the violations that seemed minor, such as the elevator call button behind a table at Speno’s Patterson hotel. Wouldn’t it make sense to just ask that the table be moved?

Goldkorn was adamant: “We’ve done that, ad nauseum, we say ‘move that’ and we wait and we wait and we wait,” she said.

She says it should be up to the courts, not lawmakers, to stop the few bad apples.

“Where is the bar association? There are ethics violations involved here, in his actions and his activities,” she asked.

After repeated calls to Mr. Johnson went unanswered, KPIX paid him a visit. No one was home. While we waited for him to show up, several cars pulled into his driveway, the drivers saw us and quickly drove off.

In Patterson, Speno has been fighting back but he’s already out thousands of dollars in legal fees.

“He might as well have just brought a gun with him and said stick ’em up, because essentially that’s what this is about, this is a stickup!” Speno said.

Assemblyman Mathis has given up on his bill for now but he plans to re-introduce it next year.

Activists we talked to say they’ll be back out in full force once again to stop it.

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