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Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits investigated

2:35 PM, Nov 26, 2013   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO - At Fine Line Trim & Upholstery in Rancho Cordova, owner Victor Valdivia is paying a price.

"Every month it's $2,000," Valdivia said.

Those monthly payments go to Valdivia's attorney as he fights a lawsuit brought by a Carmichael man for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

The lawsuit was brought by 51-year-old Scott Johnson.

Valdivia said in August he saw two women in their early 20s taking pictures of his business and measuring parking places, and a few weeks later he was served with the lawsuit.

"He wants to settle for 20 grand," Valdivia said. "I feel it is legal extortion."

News10's George Warren talked to Johnson outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento last year where Johnson would not comment on allegations brought by three of his former employees.

Those women said Johnson rarely went to businesses. Instead, they said, he would drive them around and have them take pictures and measurements looking for ADA violations.

Johnson said he files the lawsuits against businesses that are not accessible by people with disabilities, and in doing so, he said he helps bring those companies in compliance with the law.

Since ADA laws were enacted in 1990, Johnson has filed ADA lawsuits against more than 2,200 businesses. He's filed 59 so far this year.

New law change

A California law signed by Gov. Brown last year was supposed to curtail frivolous lawsuits based on ADA and state laws on disability access.

Among other things, Senate Bill 1186 made it illegal to send letters to businesses threatening to sue if owners do not agree to settle for a certain dollar amount.

The law also gave business owners some recourse, according to Disability Rights California Deputy Director Andrew Mudryk.

"So that small businesses can file complaints with the State Bar of California for lawyers who send demand letters asking for money damages," Mudryk said.

Mudryk said focusing on so-called "serial" lawsuits shifts the attention away from the real problem.

"Instead of talking about the businesses that refuse to comply with what they know to be the laws, we are talking about a handful of people who might be taking advantage of the system."

Breaking down the numbers

How big is that shift in focus off of the real problem of accessibility?

News10 combed through lawsuit databases at each of the four U.S. District Courts in California. There were 947 ADA-related lawsuits filed across the state in 2013, and more than half of them, 513, were in the Northern and Eastern Court Districts.

The data also showed 40 percent of those cases were filed by a San Jose office named The Moore Law Firm. It's operated by attorneys Tanya and Randy Moore.

Randy Moore, who lives near Los Gatos, agreed to talk, saying, "We don't have anything to hide."

Moore described the lawsuits that he and his wife file as standing up for the disabled. Like Scott Johnson, he said it is work that "brings change."

"Lawsuits will bring compliance. We'll bring a lawsuit against somebody in a certain area, and then we'll notice that the areas will get better," Moore said.

The San Jose lawyer pointed to the Fresno area, where he and his wife have brought dozens of lawsuits each year. They have filed at least two dozen so far this year, most of them in the name Ronald Moore, who is Randy Moore's brother.

Moore said he is happy and proud to talk about his brother Ronald, who, he said, is also fighting to promote better accessibility for disabled Americans.

Ronald has gone to battle in ADA lawsuits many times. Since 2009, the Moores have represented Ronald 134 times in ADA lawsuits in California.

In fact, the Moores have eight clients who account for most of their ADA suits.

Of the 649 lawsuits filed by the Moores since 2009, 518 are in the names of just eight clients. That's an average of just under 65 cases per client.

PDF: Tanya Moore letter explaining their work

Scouting for lawsuits

When asked if the Moores or their clients are searching for businesses to sue, Randy Moore replied, "People don't have to scout. That's the terrible thing. The reason there are so many lawsuits out there still after 20years since this law was enacted is because there is so little compliance."

But Victor Valdivia said he's a victim of that type of lawsuit scouting. He said he saw two young women running around taking pictures of his doors and measuring parking places and weeks later, Scott Johnson filed his ADA lawsuit against Valdivia and his business.

Two of Johnson's former employees said he used them to scout dozens of businesses, looking for ADA accessibility violations.

One of the women, who did not want her identity revealed, said, "He would drive by with us and the majority of the time he would stay in the van."

The money

It's impossible to say how much money Johnson and the Moores have received in settlements and attorney fees.

But a San Diego law firm which specializes in disability-access issues, said the average settlement for ADA lawsuits is $45,000.

If Scott Johnson settled 2,200 of his cases for $5,000 - he could have already received as much as $11,000,000.

Then again. Johnson may not have even received anywhere near that much in settlement agreement. He would not answer any questions when found at his Citrus Heights home this month.

A man who walked out of Johnson's home simply said, "He's not available right now."

Johnson has not returned calls made by News10 and neither has his lawyer.

Valdivia said Johnson is demanding a $20,000 settlement in his case.

Taking advantage of the law

While Johnson, who is quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair, is obviously disabled, others have taken advantage of the law.

ABC News found a Los Angeles County man who filed 180 ADA lawsuits against California businesses since the Act became law in 1990, running in the hills outside of L.A.

In some of his lawsuits, James Cohan stated he was confined to a wheelchair.

Last year Cohan was arrested and accused of defrauding Social Security and Medi-Cal out of more than $100,000.

"If they truly are filing fraudulent cases, then they do hurt legitimate claims," Mudryk said.

He wants attention on the issue to be on the number of businesses which still do not comply with accessibility laws.

Randy Moore said there is nothing scandalous about his firm's lawsuits. In fact, Moore said, "The law encourages multiple serial lawsuits by disability advocates."

Moore said that by filing more lawsuits, he and his clients are delivering what Mudryk and other access advocates ultimately want: more businesses in compliance with the ADA.

But Valdivia said he can't help but think some people are using the law to make money, not bring meaningful changes for people with disabilities.

"There's no reason Scott Johnson would be in my place of business for anything. I don't sell anything over the counter," Valdivia said.

What business owners can do

• Disability Rights California recommends business owners learn how to make their storefronts compliant.

PDF: ADA code regulations

• The California Commission on Disability Access has a number of resources on its website.

• You can also hire a certified ADA specialist to inspect your business and show you exactly how to become compliant.

Top 10 ADA access violations

• Signs: Outdated or incorrect signage

• Parking: Slope too steep or wrong dimensions

• Access Routes: Wrong signs, steep slopes or other hazards

• Curb Ramps: Steep slopes

• Pedestrian ramps: No handrails, landings not level, or no ramp

• Bathrooms: Too small or fixtures out of reach

• Stairs: No hazard striping or handrails, rails at wrong height, or uneven steps

• Seating: No access for people with disabilities

• Doorways: Clearance issues or improper door handles

• Exits: No exit or no signs showing exits

by ThomJensen@news10.net

News10/KXTV

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