Serial Plaintiff Turns California ADA Lawsuits Right into a Profitable Cottage Trade – CBS San Francisco
by Abigail Sterling and Allen Martin
SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – A string of lawsuits filed against companies in the Bay Area for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act has kept the merchant community in suspense. That’s because only one disabled man turned out to be behind dozen of ADA lawsuits on both sides of the bay.
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It is a devastating blow for the traders involved, who are just past the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. But KPIX discovered for plaintiffs in California that it could be a gold mine.
Life in San Francisco’s Chinatown returned to normal until a certain disabled man showed up in a wheelchair. In just a few weeks of June, Orlando Garcia filed dozens of lawsuits against companies along Grant Avenue and Irving Streets, claiming they did not provide wheelchair access.
“You can see from the video that they have no intention of actually visiting the store to become a customer, they were walking around like a tape measure,” said Jaynry Mak, owner of Dim Sum Corner and one of the merchants sued. “It’s kind of a shakedown for small mom and pop businesses.”
Garcia claims the Dim Sum Corner entrance does not have a level landing and outdoor dining areas set up during the pandemic are not wheelchair accessible. Mak says she never saw Garcia in her restaurant and she says other vendors told her they never saw him in their stores either.
“These companies are already struggling to keep a lifeline open,” said Mak. “And now this.”
Across the bay in Alameda, it was the same scenario that Garcia sued the owner of Lola’s Chicken Shack on Park Street.
“For me, it’s plain and simple blackmail,” says owner Mark Rogers. “If I was wrong about something, I would want to correct it. If you give me a ticket and say you have seven days, fourteen days, whatever it is, I would love to do it. This is a win for me, a win for the handicapped. But right now it’s only a win for someone who laughs at the court system, which is not right. “
At least a dozen other Park Street stores were hit with lawsuits from Garcia at around the same time in May and June, facing thousands of dollars in damages and legal fees.
Colin Cross and his wife own Lauren’s Closet, a kids’ shop across from Lola’s. “July 15th here is when things will go back to normal. And now we’re getting a lawsuit. It’s like come on, give us the chance to get back on our feet! ”Said Kreuz.
Garcia has filed more than 100 lawsuits this year alone. He is a so-called “serial plaintiff” in a particularly lucrative homework in California. That’s because federal law does not provide compensation, but California state law does.
“California is dramatically out of whack, so to speak,” said Cris Vaughan, an ADA defense attorney. He says the California Unrest Act also allows civil rights defenders to claim up to $ 4,000 per visit. And they can visit the same store multiple times.
“That’s why we have so many of these lawsuits in California,” said Vaughan.
ADA filings in California rose 21 percent to 6,055 in 2020, while other states saw a decline. The increase is largely due to a handful of serial filers like Scott Johnson, probably the most prolific. Others come close, including Garcia.
The law firm she represents is Potter Handy of San Diego. It has filed over 1,500 ADA lawsuits since January, according to court records. “We are lawyers. This is a civil right we specialize in, ”said Potter Handy attorney Dennis Price.
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Price says companies had 31 years to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990.
“Each of these cases is based on a legitimate violation. We want them to stop and we’re going to get them to stop, “Price said.
“I think it’s wrong to do it just for the money,” said Hannah Keizer, a disabled tourist in a wheelchair we met in Chinatown. “There are always things that could be improved. Some older buildings could use a couple of ramps to make sure the doors are actually big enough for larger wheelchairs, which is a very big problem. But I wish they would do it more because they want to help and not because of the money. “
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has opened a criminal investigation into the series of lawsuits.
“They loot and blackmail small businesses, not to defend the critical rights or inclusion of the disabled, but to shake down and blackmail those who are already suffering,” said Boudin.
But in Alameda, Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft is holding back.
“I would like to believe that plaintiffs have motives purely, that they are simply looking for the best interests of themselves and others who are in a similar situation,” said Ashcraft.
Ashcraft says it should be up to the local merchants’ association, not town hall, to try to mediate.
“You know, this is federal law. If the law and procedures need to be changed, Congress does it, ”said Ashcraft.
Ashcraft also pointed out that the ADA is a civil rights law, not a building code, so you can pass all of your building inspections and still be liable. The best way for dealers to make sure they are compliant is to hire a Certified Access Specialist.
Information from the California Division of State Architect:
The Division of the State Architect (DSA) was authorized by law in 2003 to create the Certified Access Specialist (CASp) program. The certification program is designed to meet the public’s need for experienced, trained, and tested individuals who can inspect buildings and sites for compliance with applicable federal and state building-related accessibility standards. The intent of the program is to encourage business owners to proactively determine whether their facilities meet applicable building-related accessibility standards and, if not, improve their facilities to provide people with disabilities with access to their goods and services, as has been done by the state is prescribed and federal citizenship laws.
A CASp is a professional who has passed an exam and been certified by the State of California (DSA) for specialist knowledge in the field. DSA is the only authority that conducts the exam, and only by passing the exam taken by DSA can a person become CASp. For more information on how to become a CASp, please visit our How to Apply for and Obtain CASp Certification website.
The list of CASps is published by DSA and is available here: Certified Access Specialist List. Business owners learn more about CASps from resources such as their local government (city and county websites and government agency employees) and contacting them through government agencies such as DSA, the California Commission on Disability Access, the Department of Rehabilitation, and the State Treasurer’s Office. Occasionally, members of the legislature request presentations for their constituents.
A CASp’s review of a business / property reveals that business owners care about equal access for all customers and that they intend to comply with state and federal civil rights laws regarding accessible facilities. A CASp knows which standards apply to a property based on the age of the facility and its history of improvement. While a licensed planning professional, such as an architect or engineer, can assess the access compliance of a facility, only a CASp can provide services that offer the status of “qualified defendant” in the event of a building-related accessibility lawsuit. The “qualified defendant” status entitles the entrepreneur to legal advantages such as reduced statutory damages, 90 days suspension of legal proceedings and an early evaluation conference. During a CASp inspection, which is carried out in accordance with the law on compliance with building-related accessibility standards (CRASCA, Civil Code §55.51-55.545), the owner receives a report on the status of compliance. If improvements are needed, this report will provide a list of the items that need to be corrected and a schedule (developed with the owner) for completing each of the items. Information on renting a CASp can be found on our CASp Property Inspection website.
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