Small Businesses Targeted By ADA Lawsuits

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Small businesses beware: You are at risk of getting sued over disabled access.

His name is Scott Johnson, a disabled man notorious for suing businesses for violations of the Americans with Disablities Act.

We found more than 2,000 cases filed by Johnson in federal court, going back to 2004, targeting people like Dominic Speno, owner of this Best Western hotel in Patterson.

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

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

 

Real estate developer Mel Vail’s been sued repeatedly over the years.

“Seven properties. And sued more than once on a couple,” said Vail.

They’re often referred to as “drive-by” lawsuits: Drive by, find violations, drive off, then sue and collect damages. Johnson, we’re learning, has turned his operation into a business, complete with full-time staff.

“He gave them maps every day of where to drive and where to go,” said attorney Catherine Corfee, who represents 4 former employees who sued Johnson for sexual harassment.

“He told them how many complaints they had to file in a work week,” she said.

She says the employees had to fill out forms, circling all the violations they could find at each business and checking off details like: “stayed”, “receipt” and “reason.”

“He gave them bonuses for how many lawsuits they prepared and if they misspelled the name of a business in the lawsuit they would lose their bonus,” she said.

Johnson’s company — Disabled Access Prevents Injury — is registered as a private corporation, so there’s no way to know how much he’s making. But ADA consultant Kim Blackseth guesses that over the years it’s added up to millions.

“We have in effect an Easter egg hunt,” said Blackseth.

Because aside from forcing the business to fix violations and recovering attorney fees, plaintiffs in California also collect damages of $4,000 dollars per visit.

“There is some incentive for someone disabled to i.d. these issues,” said Blackseth.

And it turns out finding ADA violations is like shooting fish in a barrel. On a tour of his neighborhood Blackseth spotted dozens.

“There’s virtually nowhere that I know that I can’t find a technical violation,” he said.

Technical violations could be a sign that’s a few inches too small or a ramp that’s just a degree too steep.

“All of these are real regulations, but are they really a barrier? Are they really stopping you from going to 7-11 and getting a beef stick? Sometimes, but as a general rule not,” said Blackseth.

“It does bother me in the sense that being in a wheelchair and I go into a restaurant it’s automatically assumed you know, what’s he here for, is he going to sue, you can feel it in the hair at the back of your neck. I don’t need it,” said Blackseth.

But he says the only way the drive-by trend will stop is to eliminate statutory damages, a drastic action that he predicts Sacramento will never take.

“In my experience the legislature has been deeply frightened of the disabled community and the backlash,” said Blackseth.

So for now its business as usual.

Comments

One Comment

  1. Why is it no one ever focuses on the fact that there is a law, and that law relies upon private enforcement. So what if Johnson is motivated by money? Nowhere does this story, or any ADA hit piece, EVER say that the business was in compliance. Even the Ninth Circuit has recognized that serial litigation by a few champions is necessary to realize and effectuate the purpose of the ADA.

    And since when do we condone violations of the law and vilify the victims of illegal conduct? Kim Blackseth’s argument that some lawsuits are about technical violations is grossly exaggerated. Most of these lawsuits are about real barriers to access. There was a property owner that says he was sued 3 times – why is that? Why didn’t he take the first lawsuit as a warning and proactively bring his other properties into compliance? He is a serial violator – but we don’t focus on that.

    Businesses have had since 1990, when the ADA was enacted, to get their act together and be accessible. My dad is disabled, and I can relate that he often chooses just to stay at home rather than try to navigate the built environment. Mr. Blackseth has a very nice, very expensive wheelchair that helps him overcome a lot of barriers that other persons with disability who cannot afford such a luxury cannot.

    I challenge anyone who thinks these lawsuits are a sham to spend a day in a wheelchair. My former husband was forced to at one point and gained a huge insight into the day in the life of persons with disabilities.

    As far as denying damages to persons with disabilities, the purpose of that is to minimize the number of lawsuits filed, not maximize compliance. Persons with disabilities are treated very differently than other civil rights groups. The discrimination against them is not recognized. And while Mr. Johnson may be entitled to $4,000 per visit, where is the evidence that he actually even gets that? All kinds of assumptions are being made in these consistently one-sided reports. Mr. Johnson’s choice not to speak to the media comes from having learned that a fair report is never given – quotes are taken out of context, and a hatchet job done to the truth. There is no winning when the media decides what the story will be.

  2. I am an Architectural Design professional and we deal with Accessibility and compliance everyday. It can be a complicated subject and each city can have specific requirements on top of the state and federal law. Yes, it is about universal design and I agree everyone should have the same experience and access, however, there is a measure of hardship for owners when these ADA design standards are taken advantage of by those who abuse them. Either way, it is important and requires many levels of attention and coordination. I am also available to offer my services on the matter and answer any questions. I am an advocate for working together and making our built environment enjoyable and universal which should be the main focus.

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