In response to a recent wave of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits against San Francisco’s Chinatown from two prolific ADA plaintiffs, Mayor London Breed announced plans on Thursday to help small businesses improve accessibility.
“Adhering to ADA law is important, but we understand the complexities that exist in Chinatown, in particular,” said Breed, referring to the neighborhood’s hilly terrain and old buildings.
Businesses and community leaders across Chinatown have been on high alert after about 100 companies have been hit by lawsuits alleging violations of the ADA in recent months.
San Francisco is offering thousands of dollars to small businesses in Chinatown that have been affected by lawsuits alleged to have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Christie Smith reports.
Orlando Garcia and Brian Whitaker, the two men behind the Chinatown lawsuits, have filed more than 1,000 ADA lawsuits across California since the pandemic began last year, according to an analysis of court records from the NBC Bay Area investigative unit. More than 400 of these were filed in Northern California.
You are one of a group of five plaintiffs who are responsible for approximately 75% of the ADA lawsuits filed in the Bay Area federal judicial district during that period, according to the analysis.
“These cases are based on making this place more accessible,” said Dennis Price, an attorney with the Center for Disability Access, the San Diego law firm that represents Garcia and Whitaker, along with a handful of other California ADA plaintiffs. “We’re not trying to put these people out of business.”
One of those lawsuits landed on the doorstep of Hons Wun-Tun House, a Cantonese-style restaurant that has been a staple of Chinatown for nearly 50 years.
Amanda, the owner of Hons Wun-Tun House in San Francisco’s Chinatown, says her business was recently hit by an ADA lawsuit as the restaurant tries to recover from pandemic losses.
“This restaurant is run by the family,” said Amanda, the owner of the restaurant, who says she works 12 hours a day, six days a week to keep her business open. “I took over three years ago. I am a single woman. So, it’s very, very difficult for me. “
The lawsuits come at a difficult time for Chinatown businesses, many of whom have been hard hit by the pandemic and have struggled to keep their doors open.
The lawsuit against Hons Wun-Tun House says the restaurant didn’t offer wheelchair-accessible tables for customers last March, but Amanda says she was only serving takeout at the time.
“It was slow after COVID,” said Amanda. “Business has declined by 40 to 50 percent.”
“I’m really very concerned about the business. I want to serve everyone [that comes] to the restaurant.”
Breed said $ 50,000 in city funding would soon be used to help businesses conduct ADA compliance inspections, and an additional $ 500,000 will be added shortly to help merchants roll out the code.
“My goal is to focus on solutions, provide solutions to do business in Chinatown, and get people to visit Chinatown,” said Breed.
Less than two blocks from Hons Wun-Tun House, visitors can find Tane Chan in the Wok Shop on Grant Avenue. Her business is another neighborhood facility that is now looking to respond to an ADA lawsuit.
“It’s been here in the heart of Chinatown, the community I love, for 54 years,” said Chan, one of the first local businesses to take advantage of Americans’ sudden interest in woks after President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. “The wok is for all areas of life.”
Tane Chan has been running the wok shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown for more than 50 years
Despite having been in business for more than half a century, Chan said it was the first time anyone with her business was addressing an ADA issue that is now teeming with tourists again.
“All of these businesses have been in business for so long,” said Chan. “I’ve never heard of complaints about ADA.”
Last week, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced a criminal investigation into “potentially fraudulent” lawsuits against traders in Chinatown.
“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 blackmailing settlements rather than defending disability rights,” Boudin said. “We will not tolerate any exploitation of the Chinese community or any business owners.”
But Price fired back at Boudin, who says no city official has contacted his company about the lawsuits, and accused the district attorney of helping amid the ongoing recall against him.
“The entirety of this press release and the story behind it are wrong,” Price said. “We’re not targeting the Chinatown community. We are not targeting Chinese companies. “
The data shows Price is right about that. His clients are suing all types of businesses across California. NBC Bay Area has not inspected companies to independently verify ADA compliance, but Price said its clients only file cases that pass in court.
“All of my clients are trying to change something,” Price said. “I just don’t think if my customers don’t complain [these businesses]that a few weeks later they suddenly found compliance. “
But many remain skeptical of these motives.
“More than 1,500 lawsuits have been filed by a law firm since the beginning of the year,” said Kurt Franklin, partner at the San Francisco-based law firm Hanson Bridgett, which has defended companies against ADA lawsuits. “We have had a lot of frequent filers in the past, so that’s not new to ADA. But more than 1,500 since the beginning of the year are staggering, and especially after a pandemic with restaurants and shops just reopening. “
Although Price insists that any settlement agreements his clients make with companies require compliance issues to be resolved, Franklin said the lawsuits can seem like a quick fundraiser.
“The motive doesn’t really seem to be to make improvements,” Franklin said. “Usually these cases are a cash payment and that’s how they are resolved.”
Having been part of Chinatown for the past 50 years, Chan hopes the community will find a way that works for everyone.
“Let’s just get together and try to make it work,” said Chan. “We can’t just close our stores. No, that’s the livelihood for so many families. “