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Merchants worry they might be next lawsuit targets

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POSTED May 22, 2014 1:40 a.m.

Dan Kaiser doesn’t agree with Carmichael-based attorney Scott Johnson’s tactics for making sure that California businesses comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Since 1996 Johnson has filed thousands of lawsuits against mom-and-pop businesses throughout California for ADA violations. He had served as the chief villain in stories about prized and revered local businesses closing their doors because they can’t come up with either the proposed settlement – a term critics refer to as “legal extortion” – fee or the money needed to renovate.

But Kaiser’s message to Manteca business owners that packed into the city council chambers Wednesday morning to learn more about what they could do to comply with – or fight – the serial litigator was one that few in attendance probably wanted to hear. 

“You’ve had 23 years to comply with the law, and now it’s time to do so.”

More than a dozen Manteca businesses recently learned that they were being sued by Johnson for violating his civil rights by not complying with the ADA. Others that have not yet received legal notifications are worried that they might be next on the list. 

As many as 21 pending legal actions are outstanding with Manteca merchants. 

Businesses like Janice Ward’s The Hair Company are scrambling to figure out how to proceed with the suit for $68,000 in punitive damaged that Johnson is seeking for what he alleges are seven violations of ADA laws. Ward said that his investigation came under the guise of getting a haircut, which he paid for – others like Sean Aquino’s Mr. Biggs Smokehouse and Deli are waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

Aquino, who rented a space along Main Street and claims he was never told about ADA compliance issues or anything he might have to mitigate in the future, held back tears as he talked about the uncertain future he faces after putting all of his chips into the pot on the idea that the restaurant would survive on its dedicated customer base. 

“If we get that notice then that’s it – we’re done,” he said. “We put everything that we had into that and to think that it could be gone just like that? I can’t even describe it.”

And Johnson’s lawsuits aren’t to be taken lightly. 

Some of the businesses that have already been papered are located in older buildings – which means Downtown Manteca – that were built almost a century before the ADA was ever even considered. And California was ahead of the curve when it came to accommodating people with disabilities, adopting its own precursory version of the law in the late 1960s.

Brad Evans, a quadriplegic who is confined to a wheelchair, said that he’s disgusted that somebody representing a class of people in which he identifies would go so far as to shut down private businesses to make a point about access not being provided adequately. 

For the first 10 years that Evans was confined to a wheelchair ADA regulations didn’t even exist. And while he admits that there are occasionally accessibility issues, most business owners, he said, are more than willing to be accommodating when they’re brought to light. 

“The people in this community have been terrific in terms of correcting issues, and it’s never gotten to a point where a lawsuit has been necessary,” Evans said. “I think that it’s disgusting that he’s going around and doing this – it’s not how everybody that requires handicap access feels, and I don’t think that it’s the right avenue for these problems to be corrected. 

“There are ways to solve these issues, and this isn’t one of them.”

Kaiser, who will hold another ADA information session in July, recommended that business owners work with the City of Manteca’s building safety division to ensure that the scope of the work being done to bring existing buildings into compliance be done so by a Certified Access Specialist – whose signature on permits is as close to ironclad as one can get if ADA litigation were to be levied. 

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