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Fear of ADA lawsuit forces business to lock its doors

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POSTED June 3, 2014 1:56 a.m.

John Perez is afraid.

It is why he’s locking the door to his business these days.

His fear isn’t some meth crazed thug that might try to rob him.

That’s penny ante stuff.

He’s worried about lawyers using the law to loot the pockets of small businessmen like him.

Ever since Carmichael-based lawyer Scott Johnson slapped civil rights lawsuits against at least 21 Manteca business seeking punitive damages for allegedly being out of compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act access rules he’s been locking the front door to his South Main Street cabinet shop, Perez & Sons. He’s posted a sign that tells potential clients to call a specific number for an appointment. And while he doesn’t get a lot of drop-in clientele he can’t risk the chance.

A good number of the targets of Johnson’s 3,000 lawsuits throughout Northern California over the years have been forced out of business from Lake Tahoe to the Bay Area to Sacramento with punitive damages approaching six figures.

At least one of the 21 Manteca businesses served with court filing in the San Diego District federal court — Johnson avoids the Sacramento federal district as judges there have reportedly developed a low tolerance for his lawsuits — is facing such a possibility. Johnson drove over 60 miles to get a hair cut at The Hair Company on West Yosemite Avenue where none of their handicapped customers have ever complained about ADA accommodations. And instead of leaving a tip he had owner Janice Ward served with papers indicating he intends to sue her for $68,000 for various violations. And the bottom line as in  all of Johnson’s lawsuits is he doesn’t care if ADA improvements are made but failure to do so after paying damages can subject the business owner of a landlord to future lawsuits.

Some of the claims made against businesses include Century 21 Furniture’s failure to move fast enough to move a dinette chair pulled out from a table by a customer who was trying it out that was left in a manner to impede wheelchair access in an aisle.

“I’ve talked to a lot of business people and they’re very afraid,” Perez said.

• • •

Perez Cabinets sponsoring free workshop Friday

Perez decided to lock his doors until such time he could figure out what he needs to do to comply with the law to avoid being a target of attorneys trolling for legal paydays. His cabinet business is roughly 50 years old. His building is even older.

Perez, after listening to other business owners express fear of lawsuits that could wipe them out financially, decided to do something.

He’s secured the services of Dawn Anderson, an architect and inspector that is an expert in the area of construction and accessibility requirement regulations.

He’s arranged for Anderson to addresses concerned business people and landlords this Friday, June 6, from 1 to 4 p.m. at The Emory, 1028 W. Yosemite Ave.

And while Perez said that he and others appreciate the hour-long workshop staged by the city, the ADA expert the city had simply read printed documents and didn’t take questions. This time around there will be a presentation and an opportunity to ask questions.

Perez said Anderson is also trying to bring with her a lawyer that has extensive expertise in fighting the type of lawsuits Manteca businesses are up against.

The free workshop on Friday will cover:

•  how to reduce risk and liability posed by aggressive litigators.

•  ADA laws.

•  a review of basic claims made under ADA rules and protections provided by California statutes.

•  duties of businesses and property owners.

• 10 ways to reduce risk and liability.

• the need to hire an attorney and how to do so.

• • •

Manteca council may press for federal action

The Manteca City Council when they meet tonight is considering sending letters  to federal representatives in support of House of Representatives Bill 994 known as ‘The ACCESS” or ADA Compliance for Consumer Entry to Stores and Services Act. The bill authored by Congressman Ken Calvert of Southern California and co-sponsored by Congressman Jeff Denham and 12 others has languished in committee for over a year.

Johnson did not give businesses a chance to comply first with the ADA laws before suing them. Such a practice is allowed under federal law.

 The letter the council is considering notes for many of California’s small businesses the threat of a lawsuit alone can mean reduced hours, layoffs, limited pay increases for employees or shuttering of a business

The letter details how thousands of such lawsuits are filed in California each year. Based on California Chamber of Commerce statistics, over 40 percent of such ADA lawsuits nationwide are filed in the Golden State.

The proposed law would end the practice of “abusive lawsuits in which unscrupulous attorneys sue businesses seeking quick settlements, not improved access for the disabled.”

The bill would not make businesses immune from lawsuits. Instead it would give business owners and landlords 60 days to provide the aggrieved person with a description outlining the improvements that they will make to address the violation. Then they would have 120 days to remove or fix the violation. If landlords or business owners fail to meet the terms, only then will a lawsuit go forward.

The council meets at 7 p.m.  at the Civic Center, 1001 W. Center St.

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