Several times each week, I get a phone call from a California business or property owner who has been hit with an ADA compliance lawsuit.
In just the past few years, over 14,000 such lawsuits have been filed in our state. It’s a lottery that no business owner wants to win. There are attorneys and serial plaintiffs who file hundreds of accessibility related lawsuits, usually targeting smaller businesses. Why? Because they are betting on the targeted business owner not having the time, money and legal team necessary to litigate. And they are banking on that business owner choosing instead to pay them several thousands of dollars to withdraw the suit.
Many people consider these so-called “shakedown lawsuits” to be the equivalent of legalized extortion. They say the lawyers and serial plaintiffs are motivated by greed, not by a sincere desire to improve access for people with disabilities. According to an investigative report published by News10, “California has 40 percent of the nation’s ADA lawsuits, but only 12 percent of the country’s disabled population.”
On the state level, in May 2012 Senate Bill 1186 was passed. As reported in LegalNewsline.com:
Senate Bill 1186 would ban “demand for money” letters. In these letters, lawyers often order businesses to pay a set amount, plus their exorbitant legal fees, in exchange for dropping the case.
SB 1186 also would require attorneys to send a notice letter, listing any alleged construction-related violations, at least 30 days before filing a lawsuit.
In addition, the measure would require landlords to disclose whether their buildings or properties are state certified and in compliance with ADA laws.
But many people also believe that making our businesses and public properties accessible to all Americans is the right thing to do. And, given that the US Census reports over 19% of the civilian non-institutionalized population—54 million people—have disabilities, ADA compliance makes good business sense.
Even Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Rocklin, who introduced two measures to counter the tide of ADA lawsuits noted, about 98 percent of California businesses are out of compliance with state and/or federal disability access laws. This, despite the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) having been the law of the land for over 20 years.
What can you, as a business owner or property owner, do? How can you protect yourself from being sued?
Making your business and property compliant with ADA laws is the ideal protection from accessibility lawsuits. This might mean hiring a Certified Access Specialist (CASp) licensed by the State of California to perform a comprehensive survey of your property. It could also necessitate purchasing and installing the correct California disabled parking signs, Braille signs, any required ramps, as well as making restrooms wheelchair accessible. Not to mention documenting, documenting, documenting. Just in case you do wind up in court.
Like it or not, so-called “shakedown lawsuits” are a real feature of the California business landscape. Why count only on good luck to protect you from being hit with an ADA related lawsuit? Committing to making your business and property ADA compliant is an investment, as well as the law.
David Boyne is a principal at ADA Sign Depot in San Diego