A lawyer with disabilities from Carmichael who filed hundreds of Americans with Disabilities Act compliance lawsuits last year has now set his sights on a Mountain View motel.
Litigant Scott Johnson’s attorney, Chris Carson of the Center for Disability Access in San Diego, this month issued a summons to the owners of Super 8, located at 1665 El Camino Real. Super 8 received a complaint from Carson Jan. 1 stating that the motel owners should be held liable for inconveniences Johnson experienced related to the motel’s parking stalls and room amenities. Public records reveal that the motel is owned by 1665 El Camino Real LLC and Veer Hanuman Corp.
According to the complaint, Johnson visited the motel multiple times from February 2017 through October 2018. He alleges that though there were parking spaces marked for people with disabilities in the lot serving the motel, the stalls and access aisle were not level with one another because of a “built-up curb ramp running into the access aisle.” Johnson also claims the transactions counter used to conduct business (presumably in the lobby) is 48 inches tall – too high for people like himself who use wheelchairs.
Carson said Johnson was not given “options equivalent to other customers” in regard to accessible rooms. Specifically, Johnson has to travel with an aide and therefore needs a room with two beds. Such a room was not offered to him, Johnson and his attorney allege. The complaint also contends that Super 8 has not maintained certain equipment that must be made available to disabled patrons, and Johnson believes from his visits that there are additional violations. Johnson plans to conduct a site inspection, according to the complaint.
Under the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, Johnson may request $4,000 in damages per offense, which is the amount he and his legal team are seeking.
Super 8 management did not reply to requests for comment before the Town Crier’s press deadline.
The Town Crier last July reported on Johnson’s history of suing corporate giants and small mom-and-pop businesses under the Americans with Disabilities Act. At that time, Johnson – with assistance from Carson’s law firm – had filed more than 300 lawsuits since the beginning of 2018. Johnson continued to file lawsuits throughout Northern California, totaling 532 by year’s end. His targets included several businesses along El Camino Real, including The Futon Shop and Walther’s Floor and Remodeling in Los Altos and Wine Press Liquors in Mountain View.
Weighing the costs
While it costs Johnson $400 to file each lawsuit, that fee is a “drop in the bucket” for him and his attorneys, said ADA defense lawyer Rick Morin, who has defended more than 100 businesses sued by the Center for Disability Access.
The financial losses the businesses suffer exceed the $4,000 plaintiffs like Johnson may receive under the Unruh Act – the bigger hit comes from legal fees, Morin said.
The Unruh Act needs restructuring, Morin told the Town Crier. However, every time a bill makes it to the California State Senate or Assembly, it fails.
“I can’t think of any reason why a reasonable lawmaker wouldn’t want to fix this problem for small businesses,” Morin said. “But time and time again, the California Legislature has failed to materially fix the Unruh Act to stop these abusive drive-by lawsuits. It is very frustrating.”
As of Jan. 22, Johnson had filed 31 lawsuits this year, according to the Public Access to Court Electronic Records portal. He filed seven of the lawsuits against businesses or individual entities in Santa Clara County.
Johnson is not the only one suing over alleged ADA deficiencies; Morin said there are several “prolific filers” in the region.
“Scott Johnson is just one among many ADA plaintiffs in the Bay Area,” Morin said.
There’s no sure-fire way to protect business owners from ADA lawsuits, Morin added. He recommended that businesses schedule biannual inspections to ensure there are no violations that can easily be fixed for much less than it would cost to hire an attorney to fight a compliance lawsuit. Taking quick action to fix any infractions identified is equally important, he said.
Considering all sides
Russell Handy of Porter Handy, the Center for Disability Access division that has represented Johnson for six years, replied to the Town Crier’s email to comment on behalf of Johnson’s lawyer, Carson, whom he oversees. The center has had problems with the media in the past, Handy said, as many reporters have dwelled on the “shock value” of a person filing hundreds of lawsuits. Because of this history, he was willing to reply only via email.
Not only are ADA compliance lawsuits necessary, but they are desirable because they have made California one of the most accessible states in the country, according to Handy.
“I see so many hit pieces on Scott Johnson and the comments that follow are, ‘Why doesn’t someone stop him?,’ ‘How does he get away with this?,’ etc.,” he said. “Folks only ask these questions because the articles are salacious and paint a picture of an opportunist grifter suing innocent businesses under some sort of loophole. That is simply not the case. … Congress vested a right-to-sue in individuals – like Scott Johnson – so that those folks could be the primary enforcement mechanism.”
The Unruh Act as written is not unconstitutional, but rather critically important for “folks with profound disabilities (that) are found within the lowest socio-economic class,” Handy said, because it allows them the penalty and right to recover attorney’s fees.
Handy argued that Morin was wrong, too, about attempts at amending the Unruh Act meant to curb “supposed” abuses. Senate Bills 1608 (2008), 1186 (2012) and 269 (2016) were all passed to refine the act.
“These bills have not had much impact on our clients or our representation of clients because we have never engaged in those abusive practices,” Handy said. “The only ‘abuse’ that my firm or my clients have been accused of is filing the lawsuits themselves. Filing a legitimate lawsuit is not abusive in any sense of the word. Ultimately, it has come down to a simple question for both the United States Congress and the California Assembly: Do we want to have enforcement of disability access laws or not?”