California Governor signs ADA reform
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Predatory lawsuit legislation that followed a joint investigative reporting series of The Modesto Bee and The Merced Sun-Star has been signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Senate Bill 269 will allow some small businesses time to fix specified technical violations of laws requiring access for disabled customers. It falls short of the meaningful reform sought by three lawmakers from this area, but represents incremental progress, advocates say.
“Small businesses should be spending time and resources providing goods and services … not fighting predatory lawsuits,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, one of the bill’s co-authors.
Supporters say the federal Americans with Disabilities Act is used in concert with California law to extort payments from bewildered companies without helping the disabled much.
Senate Bill 269 creates a presumption that certain of the more technical ADA violations do not automatically subject a business to an award of minimum statutory damages.
Serial litigants slapped businesses in Stanislaus and Merced counties with more than 60 lawsuits, The Bee and Sun-Star found in 2014 special reports. Some were brought by an Arizona man previously convicted of child pornography and fraud who has made a career of suing hundreds of California businesses each of the past 15 years, except when in prison. A few shops, including Ripon’s Barnwood Restaurant and Ming’s in Los Banos, closed rather than fight in court or buckle to settlement demands for tens of thousands of dollars.
“Finally, somebody got a clue that this was harming a lot of businesses,” said Paul Caruso, whose family has controlled a strip mall on Modesto’s Crows Landing Road since 1945. After two restaurants in the center were sued, he spent $68,000 on upgrades such as reducing driveway slope for those in wheelchairs.
The new law, signed by Brown on Tuesday, gives businesses with less than 50 employees 120 days to correct, for instance, faded parking lot stripes, sign colors and truncated domes on ramps. Some companies will be able to avoid paying $4,000 for each violation detected in what the Civil Justice Association of California calls “extortionate lawsuits.”
I applaud Governor Brown for taking a stand for California’s small businesses by signing this legislation that will protect them from frivolous lawsuits, while ensuring that those who have legitimate ADA claims are not denied due process.
“Unfortunately, California is a favored jurisdiction for these ADA lawsuits, many of which are more about money than about access,” said Kim Stone, association president. While her group continues to lobby for more substantive reform, she said the bill “is a step in the right direction, and we applaud the governor for signing it.”
Other supporters include Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Manteca, the bill’s principal co-author, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced. Galgiani, Gray and Olsen all introduced ADA reform legislation last year; facing stiff opposition, Galgiani and Gray withdrew theirs, and Brown vetoed Olsen’s watered-down bill because it contained a $250 tax credit for businesses making improvements.
“The trial lawyers are very powerful up there” in Sacramento, said Caruso, a former Stanislaus County supervisor. Local legislators “persevered; I’m very pleased with that,” he continued. “I wish that would have happened to me, but I’m glad for the next group.”