A quadriplegic attorney from Carmichael with a history of suing businesses in the Sacramento area for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act has moved south, now reaching for the pocketbooks of small-business owners in Los Altos and Mountain View.
Backed by a Southern California law firm, Scott Johnson – a licensed attorney in the state since December 1993 – has recently sued a slew of businesses on El Camino Real, including The Futon Shop and Walther’s Floor and Remodeling in Los Altos, and Wine Press Liquors in Mountain View.
Johnson filed a lawsuit against The Futon Shop, located at 4898 El Camino Real, June 18. In the complaint filed with the court, the attorney said he visited the shop seven times from February 2017 to March 2018 and found that its parking spaces reserved for the disabled were not the exact dimensions required by the ADA. Since he began visiting the shop, Johnson claimed that the spots have been allowed to fade or have been paved over.
He also alleged that the pull-bar-style door handles presented an obstacle, asserting that he personally encountered and passed through the obstacle with difficulty.
Burt Bún, customer service manager at The Futon Shop, disputed Johnson’s allegations. Bún said he doubts the number of times Johnson claims he came to the store, noting that the sales floor is small and he would have remembered creating a path for a disabled person that many times, and adding that the shop always props open the doors during business hours.
Bún said the shop had a construction crew come out last week to give a cost estimate for fixing the areas listed in Johnson’s lawsuit. One of the crew members suggested redoing the entire parking lot, which would be “an unbelievable amount of work,” according to Bún.
The manager added that the lawsuit would have a lasting effect on the small business, possibly destroying it altogether.
“Any mom-and-pop has a hell of a time getting along anyway,” Bún said.
Johnson filed lawsuits against four other businesses on the street the same day, including Walther’s Floor & Remodeling at 5084 El Camino Real.
Two months earlier, Johnson went after Wine Press Liquors at 2100 W. El Camino Real. In that complaint, Johnson alleged that during the four times he visited the store between February 2017 and January 2018, he was unable to find sufficient parking because the liquor store “is not van accessible.”
He also stated that while there is a sign in front of a designated space that suggests those with disabilities can park in it, the space and access aisle have “faded into oblivion.”
In response, counsel representing Wine Press Liquors said they did not find sufficient evidence for Johnson to bring action against the business and that his claims for relief should be barred because Johnson’s “acts, conduct and omissions constitutes unclean hands.”
They also denied Johnson’s alleged discomfort, stating that he did not suffer emotional distress to “such substantial quality or induced quality that no reasonable man in a civilized society should be expected to endure.”
The manager of Wine Press Liquors was on vacation and unable to speak with the Town Crier when contacted for comment.
As of June 5, the case was being reassigned to a U.S. magistrate judge.
According to Public Access to Court Electronic Records searches, Johnson has been a plaintiff in 312 lawsuits concerning ADA compliance since the beginning of the year. In each of the lawsuits, defendants face not only the ADA challenge, but also California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. According to the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the civil code protects all persons from discrimination by all business establishments in California, “including housing and public accommodations.”
The Unruh Act enables successful plaintiffs like Johnson to claim up to $4,000 in damages as well as request that their legal fees be paid.
The charges can add up, as the $4,000 fee applies to each visit to an offending business. However, that pales in comparison to the amount lawyers can request to compensate for their time, as well as the cost of Johnson’s counsel, which is why many businesses opt to settle quickly, said ADA defense lawyer Rick Morin.
Morin has defended more than 100 businesses that have experienced the heat of Johnson’s blazing streak of lawsuits across Northern California. Some days his Sacramento-based law firm sees three, five or even seven lawsuits from Johnson alone.
The “copy-and-paste complaints” that Johnson’s attorneys at the San Diego-based Center for Disability Access lodge are permitted because of California law, said Morin, a former state legislator. Morin and other elected representatives have tried for years to place a bill on the ballot to change the civil code and take some pressure off business owners.
“The majority was not willing to change the law,” Morin said. “What Democrat wants to be seen as someone trying to restrict those with disabilities?”
ADA regulations allow businesses to be penalized if the compliance is off even one-tenth of an inch.
“Parking especially is an easy case to prove – it’s the No. 1 way to sue,” Morinsaid. “People can see a lack of parking from Google Maps, from space.”
While ADA reform is being addressed federally through the House judiciary bill H.R. 620, the legislation would provide only limited relief to California business owners who get no warning to fix compliance issues before they face legal fees.
“It’s hard enough to run a business in this state before people are literally coming into your business (to find a reason) to sue you,” Morin said. “A lot of the people I represent are first-generation, are immigrants, and no one tells them this stuff. It’s disheartening.”
Morin urges all small and large business owners who want the law changed to call their legislators and to “fix their damn parking lots.”
Neither Johnson nor his lawyer at the Center for Disability Access, Chris Carson, responded to the Town Crier’s requests for comment.