SAN JOSE — State and federal lawmakers have launched several pieces of legislation aimed squarely at people they believe are manipulating well intentioned discrimination laws to pad their own bank accounts.
Legislators from across the state reached out to this newspaper after an article on Scott Johnson, a disabled attorney who has sued thousands of small businesses across Northern California, often over minor violations such as signs posted in the wrong color or doors with slightly too much resistance. Two state bills are snaking their way through Sacramento, while two pieces of federal legislation are also in the works.
They all look to create a window of opportunity for business owners to make minor fixes before being sued and having to pay minimum damages of $4,000 per violation, as well as attorney fees for themselves and the plaintiff.
Last month, U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, introduced the COMPLI Act, which would allow businesses 90 days after notification of violation to reach compliance. The bill also targets “high-frequency litigants,” such as Johnson.
“I have heard from numerous local businesses who were forced to shut down, lay off employees, pay out large settlements, or change locations because of repeated lawsuits and threats of lawsuits that leave these businesses with little to no financial resources or time to fix the problem and become compliant,” McNerney said.
Dennis and Shawn Wuollet own one of those affected businesses. The father and son have served up quick, fresh Mexican food favorites at Taco Bravo in Campbell for 45 years. But they have been sued not once, but twice, by Johnson in the past two years and worry they may have to shut down entirely.
“It’s a scam, and we got caught up in the scam,” said Dennis Wuollet, a 70-year-old Campbell resident. “It ruined my life, it did. It ruined my life.”
In 2014, Johnson sued the Wuollets’ second Taco Bravo on Snell Avenue in San Jose for various violations. The owner of the building and the Wuollets paid a $30,000 settlement, and Wuollet said the payout left him unable to afford the fixes, so he closed the restaurant, laying off about 15 workers.
“It’s been two years, and now I’m just catching up to my bills. … It cost so much money to open up a second store,” Dennis Wuollet said.
And now, at the original Taco Bravo at 1950 South Bascom Ave. in Campbell, Johnson has sued him a second time, along with the neighboring Wienerschnitzel. The two restaurants share parking spaces, and Wuollet is hoping his store is not the main target.
“I just think he’s suing us again because he got money from us before,” Wuollet said. “I’m still hoping it’s not true. If it is true, it’ll wipe me out. I’ll just go home and quit.”
Neither Johnson nor his attorney returned requests for comment.
On Wednesday, the California Assembly Appropriations Committee approved Senate Bill 269, which would provide businesses relief from ADA predatory lawsuits.
“The ADA serves the right purpose — to increase and ensure access for all Americans,” said Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-San Ramon, said in an email. “But it’s a shame when people take laws intended to protect the vulnerable and turn them into their own personal piggy bank.”
State Senate Bill 1142 and SB 1406 also would address the issue.
“Rather than discouraging people from bringing claims under these disability access laws, allowing for a time to cure weeds out serial attorneys and plaintiffs who are only bringing these claims for a quick payout,” said state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, who introduced SB 1142, in an email. “There is no point to these standards if a business is sued out of existence if it could not abide by them.”
California has 40 percent of the nation’s ADA lawsuits but only 12 percent of the country’s disabled population, according to U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, who has co-sponsored the ACCESS Act of 2015, which also seeks protections for business owners.
U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, who has businesses in his district that have been sued by the serial litigants, has been following the issue.
“While the ADA has been and continues to be a vital tool in achieving equal access for the disability community, we must be careful the protections it offers are not abused,” he said in a statement. “I appreciate that Congressmen Calvert and McNerney have introduced legislation to address what they see as problems with the ADA, and I look forward to working with them to ensure that we can limit abuse but still maintain the ability of the disabled to achieve equality under the law.”
After Ajay Dhillon, of Pleasanton, was sued at some of his Long John Silver restaurants in the Sacramento area by Johnson, he sold them in 2011 and moved his business to Texas, he said.
David Shaffer, who operates his own insurance agency in Walnut Creek, said that when he tore his Achilles tendon last month and was on crutches for weeks, it changed his perspective on disabled access.
“If business owners are found to be in violation, they should be required to experience what it’s like to be disabled and reflect on what it’s like to get around their businesses,” he said. “I don’t think people are sensitive to what it’s like to being disabled.”
For Taco Bravo’s Shawn Wuollet, 48, he said new laws need to give businesses the opportunity to make such fixes.
“It’s just gonna continue happening unless something is done,” he said. “People will keep going out of business, people will keep losing their jobs.”
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
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