Straw, the owner of an auto body shop in Stockton, was served on Aug. 29 with papers informing him he would be taken to court by one of Northern California’s most high-profile disability-rights attorneys.
Saying he experienced “difficulty, discomfort and embarrassment” at Straw’s shop, Carmichael lawyer Scott Johnson filed suit in U.S. District Court alleging code violations under the Americans with Disabilities Act at the business owned and operated by Straw and his wife, Paula.
Johnson, a quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair, files between 300 to 400 ADA-related lawsuits a year against business owners, says Mike Welch, the Sacramento attorney representing Straw.
Welch says he’s handled more than 100 ADA cases in 20 years, more than 30 involving Johnson. Based on his experience with Johnson and other ADA attorneys, Welch says most businesses settle out of court for about $8,000 a case.
“(Johnson) generally starts out negotiations at $15,000, then goes to $12,000 or sometimes to $5,000,” Welch says. “I know this from my own lawsuits. Most settlements are confidential, but most of mine are in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.”
By filing and settling 300 lawsuits a year, Johnson stands to make $2.4 million annually, Welch says.
“It’s a joke; absolutely … ridiculous,” Welch says of the ADA lawsuits. “It’s an abomination. I know they’re trying to get something through the Legislature to remedy this, and they need to do something quick.”
Several bills aimed at restricting ADA lawsuits were introduced and defeated in the past session of the state Legislature. Now, the ADA Notification Act is moving through Congress. It would amend the federal ADA to require a plaintiff to give a defendant the opportunity to correct a violation before pursuing civil action.
Welch charges a flat up-front fee to small businesses defending themselves against ADA lawsuits as a way to prevent costs from piling up. He sometimes does the work for free. One client recently came to him after years fighting an ADA suit with nothing to show but $63,000 in attorney fees, Welch claims.
Johnson declined several requests to comment for this story.
Straw claims he never received a letter supposedly sent by Johnson outlining the violations and giving Straw 90 days to fix them, guessing the document was sent to his office and accidentally thrown away by an employee.
A court summons delivered to Straw’s home pointed out that his business, Bugs Collision & Restoration on East Bianchi Road, lacked handicapped parking, a ramp, adequate doorway width and signage.
On top of the cost of correcting violations, the summons says Johnson can collect damages of $4,000 for each offense he found during two visits he claims he made to the business.
“He’s saying he tried to come into my business twice, but I haven’t seen any proof of that and the people who work in my office haven’t seen any customers in an embarrassing situation,” Straw says.
A photograph included as evidence in the summons shows the front entrance of Straw’s business. It was shot through a van window.
Straw, who has owned the business for 17 of its 35 years, says handicapped customers typically drive into the parking lot and an employee walks from the office to the vehicle to serve them.
“We’ve always gone out and serviced anyone who needed help,” he says. “We probably have someone who’s handicapped come through our lot every day. We’ve never had a problem; there’s never been an issue with a handicapped person not getting served.”
Welch says he expects a trial to be set for early 2013. Until then, Straw will make as many upgrades to his 1976 building as he can and decide whether to fight Johnson or settle.
Straw has been boning up on ADA codes and says he is eager to make certain upgrades. Straw’s first job is to create a van-accessible handicapped parking spot. The day after he was served, he met with an engineer to draw up plans for the parking space.
“This is more than throwing a sign up,” Straw says. The parking space closest to his front door is rough and at an improper grade to be ADA compliant. He plans to remove and replace the asphalt, resurface, paint stripes and install curbs and signs.
The cost of adding the parking, not including permits or attorney fees, will be about $7,100, and Straw is taking out a loan to pay for it. The construction project came at a tough time for Straw, one of only a handful of Miracle Auto Painting franchisees remaining after the corporation went bust two years ago.
Straw said his gross sales are 50 percent of what they were four years ago, and his staff has been cut in half.
“I’m in the same situation as most business people out there in this economy,” Straw says. “I’m still in business because we cut all the extra expenses and costs. I don’t have deep pockets. I’m trying to find the most affordable way to get through this and move on. I believe I’ll get through it, absolutely.”
When it comes to the issue of accessibility, Sacramento businessman Tony Lutfi knows the drill.
If you own, operate, lease or lease to a business that serves the public, the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to you, and you are legally obligated to follow its facility-access guidelines. Here are tips for becoming compliant, protecting yourself against a complaint or lawsuit and getting all the business you can through your doors: