A handful of businesses in downtown Half Moon Bay are being sued for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to court records, Main Street companies and organizations sued by Gilbert Salinas include Young Traders, Cottage Industries, Abode, Cafe Society, Half Moon Bay Bakery, and the Half Moon Bay Odd Fellows.
The Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 aims to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against when using public accommodation. Violations can range from large to small, from incorrectly drawn parking lots, misplaced or imperfect language on signs to inaccessible bathrooms or countertops.
On July 14th, the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau hosted a public briefing in Mac Dutra Park to help business owners get their experience under control. The chamber hired Steven Schraibman, President of Arcor Inc., a San Diego-based architecture and construction consultancy specializing in ADA compliance, to speak to the assembled crowd of nearly two dozen people.
Schraibman said “serial plaintiffs” typically file many lawsuits in quick succession that end up being settled for payment and an agreement to remediate the violation. For the past few decades, California has been a hotbed for these cases. Average billing ranges from $ 12,000 to $ 20,000. In court, federal law provides for fines of up to $ 75,000 for the first violation and $ 150,000 for additional violations. And when the plaintiffs win, they usually require the defendant to pay legal fees, which adds to the cost.
Salinas is represented by Amanda Seabock of the Center of Disability Access, a division of the San Diego-based company Potter Handy. According to court records, Salinas has been a plaintiff in 16 ADA cases since March.
For the past three years, Odd Fellows Lodge has made ADA upgrades to their building at a cost of more than $ 500,000, including installing an elevator. Joe Brennan, president of the Odd Fellows, said it was “frustrating” to invest so much in resources for disabled people only to be faced with a lawsuit.
“We were very supportive of (access rights),” Brennan said. “Well, it’s just so devastating to be involved in this aspect.”
While it can be daunting to face settlements, there are a few ways businesses can be protected from fees. Schraibman said one of the most effective ways to stop these lawsuits in the first place is to have companies work with a certified access specialist for something called CASp certification before a lawsuit or warning letter is received and to fix construction-related violations identified by the inspection within 120 days.
Certification occurs when a specialist audits the building and creates a plan to fix violations within the owner’s budget. After that, the company becomes a “Qualified Defendant” who receives a printed certificate that can be displayed in a shop window. The idea is to get rid of “low hanging fruit” and deter potential claimants who understand that the company took steps to comply with the law.
“It actually notifies potential claimants to move on,” he said.
Tricia Guidance, Abode’s landlady, said she had been in real estate and property groups for a while and had seen ADA lawsuits.
“I feel sorry for every tenant who has to deal with this,” said Guidance. “But as a business and property owner, I understand the need for everyone, disabled or not, to have safe access to the business. I will be happy to come if my building is not completely barrier-free. “
Schraibman, who has been in the business for 20 years, said he was more preoccupied than ever with ADA lawsuits in the state. California makes up 42 percent of ADA lawsuits in the country, he said, and his law firm handles between 300 and 500 cases each year.
“We’re seeing serial plaintiffs coming out of the woodwork now, something we’ve never seen before,” he said.
Schraibman said protecting the rights of the disabled is important, but added that some people are taking advantage of ADA law for personal gain.
“It is a just law. Any of us could be disabled, and there are a variety of disabilities that describe a spectrum, ”said Schraibman. “But the point is, serial plaintiffs and their lawyers ride the bus.”
Such complaints have already appeared on the coast. In 2018, several El Granada companies including The Press, Easy Mart, India Beach and Harbor Pizza dealt with alleged violations and were contacted by the Center for Disability Access.
Krystlyn Giedt, the chamber’s CEO, said she spoke to the Alameda Chamber of Commerce, which said their downtown area was recently hit by 28 ADA lawsuits. Giedt said it was unfortunate that a law was being used with good intentions by those who allegedly want to make money.
“That would be devastating in normal times,” said Giedt. “After exiting COVID, there are two companies that have already found they made it with the skin of their teeth. That will sink them if they have to pay. “