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Legal costs: Fatal blow?
Im a hair dresser ... you think Ive got money?
The Hair Company owner Janice Ward stands outside her Manteca business that she has run for over 30 years on West Yosemite Avenue as she points out the recent ramp work to make the business ADA compliant. - photo by HIME ROMERO

The front entrance to The Hair Company is blocked off by caution tape. 

Below foot, fresh cement awaits a black-top finish, which will be shaped into a ramp.

Through the door, which features a new long-handled knob, owner Janice Ward cradles a phone between her ear and shoulder. 

She’s busy.

So is her salon, a fixture on downtown Manteca’s western edge for the last half decade.

The chairs behind Ward are filled with customers – three women and one man, to be exact – each spilling snipped hair and words onto the floor.

One woman, with curls in her hair and glasses on the tip of her nose, waits patiently for her stylist to return from the back shop. She’s well into Janet Evanovich’s latest novel – Explosive Eighteen – and showing no signs of slowing down. “It’s like a comic book for adults,” she says, before diving back into its pages.

Stylist Rod Kaady clips a straight line along a weathered neck line. Water drips off his scissors and down his client’s shirt, startling him. He squirms. “There is some hair there that needed some water,” Kaady quips. 

It sickens Ward to know all of this – the perms and color dye, the stylish short haircuts and savory long stories – could all go away.

If barbershops and hair salons are the collective conscious of a community, the buzz amongst this chatty crowd casts an ominous cloud over Manteca’s business sector.

A mystery man with a long history of litigation and seemingly frivolous lawsuits against Northern California businesses has turned his sights on Manteca and Ripon.

Attorney Scott Johnson, a quadriplegic from Carmichael, has reportedly filed 36 lawsuits against businesses in Manteca, including The Hair Company, for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

On Thursday, the Barnwood Restaurant in Ripon announced it had received a similar lawsuit from Johnson and would shut its doors this Sunday, making it the area’s first casualty. Owners Don Lee and Ken Hildebrand say they are unable to meet the financial demands of renovation or lawsuit.

“He’s got everyone scared. It’s too bad. He’s scaring this town and Ripon and everywhere else he goes,” Ward said. “That’s what’s scary; he’s been doing this for 10 years. Talk about extortion.

“He’s never been in this building. He’s suing people from Sacramento, but he’s never been here. That worries me. Why’s he doing this to everybody?”

Ward worries the salon she’s owned for nearly 30 years – and worked at it for nearly 40 – will suffer the same fate as Barnwood Restaurant. 

If Johnson succeeds, Ward said The Hair Company would likely be on the hook for Johnson’s lawyer fees and any penalties assessed by the judge. She doesn’t have that kind of expendable money. The Hair Company employs eight and generates “enough (income) to pay the bills,” Ward said.

“This would shut me down. We’ve been here a long time, but we still need to work. If we go to court and he wins, I have no clue how much this will cost,” she said. “I’m a hair dresser ... you think I’ve got money?”

There is truth to the points outlined in the lawsuit. Ward, who was served papers at her home on Easter weekend, won’t dispute any of their claims. 

Her building is nearly 50 years old, and though the inside has been renovated and brought into the 21st century, the exterior remains relatively unchanged through the years.

“Everything he said is true,” she said, “but we didn’t realize it. In all honesty, we didn’t know we had a problem.”

What irks Ward is that  Johnson seemingly cares more about a lucrative pay day than the compliance issues he raises from case to case, city to city; and that upstanding businesses such as Barnwood Restaurant and The Hair Company are forced to contemplate their own mortality.

“I’ve never had complaints from anybody. Nobody has ever got a bad haircut. No one’s ever filed a lawsuit or anything,” she said with a slight chuckle.

“We’ve had ladies getting their hair cut here for the last 40 years. The loyalty is awesome. They’re just as mad about this as we are.”

What’s more, Johnson has refused to speak with Ward and her employees. She said he’s visited the lot once since the lawsuit, but didn’t get out of his van or acknowledge the staff.

In 40 years, Ward said The Hair Company has never experienced an incident as potentially crippling as this.

Her salon has long catered to the elderly and the handicapped. 

For three decades, the late Dorothy Faix had her hair shampooed and cut by Ward. It was her Monday routine, husband Norm said. They would leave their rural home in North Manteca and spend the morning or afternoon under Ward’s care.

Dorothy spent the last eight years of her life in a wheelchair, the result of a broken hip and open-heart surgery. She passed away three years ago this month.

“My wife was confined to a wheelchair the last eight years of her life and we never had a problem,” said Norm, 78. “We went there constantly. It was her routine on Mondays to go in there. I don’t understand what anybody would complain about.”

Norm said Ward and her staff were very accommodating to Dorothy and those with physical limitations, and if need be, he’ll gladly testify on the salon’s behalf in court.

“I was surprised (by the lawsuit), to tell you the truth, because I know how well Janice has always treated her customers,” he said. “I would have no problem testifying for her. Everybody there that has worked there has been more than helpful.”

Ward estimates it will cost tens of thousands of dollars to bring her shop into compliance with the ADA standards.

The work has begun.

On Wednesday, she had a cement foundation poured outside the front entrance. Asphalt will be laid over the top and sloped toward the parking lot, creating a ramp for those in a wheelchair or walker.

Ward replaced the round knob on the front door with a long handle. She also spoke with a contractor on Thursday about installing a handicap parking space, wide enough to accommodate a van, near the front the door.

“I’ve already spent a couple thousand dollars,” Ward said, “and we’re just getting started.”