When lawsuits targeting businesses not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act first swept through Davis, Suresh Kumar saw the signs on Olive Drive.
Like dominoes, Redrum Burger, Shell and — eventually — Kumar’s Olive Drive Market joined the slate of businesses sued for ADA non-compliance. Kumar paid $6,000 to settle his lawsuit.
“The reason people settle is that if you’re actually going through the legal process, it’s probably 10 times more expensive,” he said. “People who are involved in the lawsuits are attorneys, and they know this.”
Plaintiffs alleged that the three Olive Drive businesses did not meet ordinances designed to accommodate individuals with disabilities. Kumar said his concern was not with the law, but rather the lack of warning of his violation.
“I’m in no way against any of the regulations,” he said. “But I’m just asking to be tactical, and have some time to fix it. There’s a slogan, ‘Small business is the backbone of America,’ and we have to strengthen it, not weaken it.”
That’s why Kumar joined Travis Hausauer, co-chair of Californians Against Lawsuit Abuse and himself a target at Sacramento’s Squeeze Inn burger restaurant. Together, the organization of small business owners discussed solutions.
The group found success when a Senate bill it supported, SB 1186, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. It went into effect Jan. 1.
Authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the bill takes aim at predatory lawsuits by barring lawyers from issuing threatening letters before litigation. It also reduces the minimum fine for violations from $4,000 to $1,000.
Maryann Marino, representative of the Californians Against Lawsuit Abuse, said the hope is that the financial incentive for filing “frivolous lawsuits” has been reduced or removed entirely.
The remaining objective is extending the length of time business owners with ADA compliance infractions have to take corrective action, she added.
“The problem with these lawsuits is that no one seems to care whether the problem is fixed or not,” Marino explained. “They just want to get the amount of money it takes for the accused party to settle.”
How the new bill will affect ADA “enforcers” like Sacramento attorney Scott Johnson, who has filed more than 2,200 ADA complaints, remains to be seen. Johnson was responsible for nearly all of the Davis lawsuits.
Johnson declined comment. The disabled rights crusader has recently become involved in a lawsuit himself, filed by four of his former legal assistants who accuse him of sexual harassment.
It’s not always the cost of settling lawsuits that puts a business under; sometimes it’s the changes that are necessary to comply with the ADA.
Don Shor of Redwood Barn Nursery, named in one of Johnson’s lawsuits, can attest to the expenses associated with meeting standards. Shor said he had to redo parking layout and signage, along with the entrance to his nursery on East Fifth Street.
“I’m actually happy to comply, and pleased with the results, but not happy about the way it came about,” he said. “We were lucky. Some businesses simply won’t be able to fully comply at a reasonable cost.”
Shor’s words are certainly true for one of Davis’ longest-running fast-food restaurants, Dairy Queen. The restaurant, at 909 Fifth St., may have to close because it faces approximately $50,000 in mandated accessibility improvements.
Owner Shahid Iqbal said the franchise is asking him to foot the bill, which he can’t afford. A “for lease” sign is posted outside the establishment, and Iqbal said the building owner has put a two-month deadline on the upgrades.
After more than 50 years of operation, a staple of local sweet treats and burgers may be gone as early as April.
While the potential closure seems sentimental, on the other side of the issue are a group of individuals who would be excluded from accessing some local businesses if not for the ADA upgrades.
“It’s important to have access laws in place for people with disabilities, so that they can be part of the community and have the same quality of life as anyone else,” said Margaret Johnson, advocacy director for Disability Rights California.
And in each legal proceeding and political decision, perhaps it’s this group that really has the most at stake.
“As a person with a disability myself, I obviously think it’s important that things be made accessible,” she said. “I’m able to get out and around and do everything, and I appreciate communities who welcome me in that way.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett