ALAMEDA – Business owner Mark Rogers admits he was amazed and a little confused when the letter arrived from a law firm offering to represent him in a lawsuit alleging violating the Americans with Disabilities Act .
Then he got a second letter from another lawyer. And then a third and a fourth letter landed from lawyers who all wanted to represent him.
“I thought, ‘Uh, oh,'” said Rogers, who owns Lola’s Chicken Shack on Park Street.
Little did Rogers know that his restaurant, a popular lunch spot that serves fried chicken in sandwiches and on salads, had been hit by an ADA lawsuit.
But shortly after receiving the letters in June, Rogers said he learned that dozens of other Alameda companies had received similar correspondence from attorneys who specialize in defending against ADA lawsuits – and that all were related to cases filed on behalf of Orlando Garcia, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
Garcia and fellow plaintiff Brian Whitaker, a quadriplegic who also uses a wheelchair, have filed more than 1,000 ADA lawsuits across California since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, according to news reports.
Last month, it emerged that the two men had targeted around 100 restaurants and shops in San Francisco’s Chinatown for alleging ADA violations.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced a criminal investigation into these lawsuits in July.
“We have received reports of frivolous lawsuits deliberately targeting small businesses in Chinatown – often owned by monolingual immigrants – that seek to undermine the ADA by using it to blackmail settlements rather than defend disability rights.” Boudin said in a press release exploiting the Chinese community or any business owners. We know that Chinese traders are no more likely to violate the ADA than any other business owner, and we take these allegations very seriously. We encourage anyone who believes they have been attacked fraudulently to contact our office when we begin our investigation. “
Alameda City Manager Eric Levitt said prosecutors have not investigated as the city views the disputes as a private matter between the plaintiff and the dealers. However, he also said local business owners have contacted Attorney General Rob Bonta for help.
“We’re worried,” Levitt said in an interview. “We want all companies to be ADA compliant. But we also hope that both sides can work together to solve problems. “
Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft repeated Levitt.
“We are certainly concerned about access,” she said. “But we are also concerned that these lawsuits appear to be targeting small businesses that are already having a hard time with the pandemic and the significant financial consequences for them.”
Ashcraft said she would like to see a mediator work with both sides and suggested that traders have six months to fix violations before facing sanctions.
The Alameda district prosecutor is currently not examining the complaints, said spokeswoman Angela Ruggiero by email.
A representative from Potter Handy, the San Diego law firm that has a division called the Center for Disability Access that represents Garcia and Whitaker, did not respond to a request for comment.
A Sacramento County attorney and quadriplegic Scott Johnson has filed more than 6,250 ADA lawsuits since 2003, according to the Sacramento Bee. Prosecutors indicted Johnson in 2019 for allegedly failing to report his income from the legal proceedings. The case is pending.
Johnson’s defendants included Crown Tires & Auto Repair in Hayward, where Johnson claimed unable to find accessible parking while visiting. The case was settled in May, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Representatives from the Alameda Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Alameda Business Association and the West Alameda Business Association declined to comment on the local lawsuits, saying that each company should decide whether to raise the issue publicly.
Rogers said he understood about 61 Alameda companies were hit.
The ADA, signed by President George HW Bush in July 1990, aims to make buildings and means of transport accessible to people with disabilities and to protect them from discrimination in the workplace.
Duncan Girvan, 27, of Oakland, said he was shocked to learn of the number of lawsuits filed by so few plaintiffs while visiting Park Street in Alameda.
“It’s tough for all kinds of businesses right now,” said Alameda’s friend Kelly Zhang, 22. “Many restaurants are barely able to cope with COVID. Things like that can make things worse for them. “
The allegation against Lola is that the ramp that leads into the shop is not level and people with disabilities do not have equal access.
But Rogers said he measured the ramp after learning about the lawsuit and determining that it was compliant.
“I see this as a shakedown,” he said of the allegations against his restaurant.
A successful plaintiff in an ADA lawsuit can receive $ 4,000 for each federal violation and is eligible for reimbursement of their legal fees.
Rogers said he has no plans to resolve the case against him. However, he suspects that his legal fees could be as high as $ 30,000.
He has already spent $ 5,000 on a lawyer’s fee, he said.
“I suppose I’ll have to eat this in the end,” said Rogers. “But you also have to look at what is economical. I still do that. You don’t know what will happen until you get there. “