Auburn businesses struggle with ADA lawsuit costs

Compliance plans offer legal protection
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Steve Rowett will be paying Carmichael-based attorney Scott Johnson $200 a month for the next five years. Rowett, who owns Sierra Smog on the corner of Highway 49 and Elm Avenue, in Auburn, is one of several local business-owners who were sued by Johnson for their buildings being out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. If he would have had a plan in place with a Certified Access Specialist before being sued by Johnson, he would have been protected from legal action, according to Michelle Davis, Auburn architect and Certified Access Specialist. “The program is designed to meet the public's need for experienced, trained and tested individuals who can render opinions as to the compliance of buildings and sites with the State of California codes and regulations and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for accessibility,” said a statement on the California Department of General Services website. Rowett said he has paid over $3,500 in legal fees, $4,000 in an initial settlement, plus the $12,000 in additional payments that will be made. When he remodels his building in a couple of years, 10 percent of the overall cost of the project has to be dedicated to making Sierra Smog ADA compliant. Originally, Rowett subleased the building from Auburn couple Cal and Bev Lynn. When legal fees from Johnson’s lawsuit became a hardship, Bev Lynn said she decided it would be a good time to sell the building she owned for over 20 years. “It took $3,500 from us, that’s for sure,” Lynn said. “I don’t agree with it because an older building can’t always come to compliance.” Rowett said while he has every intention of making the necessary changes to Sierra Smog, he believes Johnson is targeting businesses for his own profit. “If there was a class-action lawsuit, I would definitely join it,” Rowett said. New laws to curb lawsuit abuse? Tom Scott is executive director of the California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. According to Scott, an abusive lawsuit is filed in pursuit of profit, rather than justice. He said a couple of new pieces of legislation have attempted to address lawsuit abuse in the state. “Senator Bob Dutton this year introduced SB 783, which would have allowed business owners 120 days from notice of an ADA lawsuit to fix whatever access restrictions that are named on the lawsuit. Under SB 783, if they don’t fix them within 120 days, legal action could then commence,” Scott said. “This bill would bring more business owners into compliance without forcing them to incur legal costs.” Scott said that anybody who believes they are a victim of lawsuit abuse should contact an attorney. He said the complex set of standards for ADA compliance is one reason so many businesses haven’t corrected the problems. “The fact that so many businesses in California are out of ADA compliance reflects the reality that the ADA code is incredibly complex, and it is changed several times per year,” Scott said. “A building may be out of compliance only a year after it was built, even if it was in full compliance when construction started. What’s worse, state and federal standards are not always the same.” He said lawsuits like Johnson’s only thicken the wallet of the plaintiff. “Neither businesses or the disabled benefit from abusive suits, while a few unscrupulous lawyers and plaintiffs have made a fortune off minor violations of small businesses,” Scott said. Johnson could not be reached for comment at press time. Davis said while no business wants to be sued, most people with disabilities want to be able to be as independent as possible. ADA requirements are one way for them to be accommodated. “I would say do you want 20 percent more of the population to walk in your door and do business with you?” Davis said. “That is the percentage of our population that has some sort of disability. The baby boomers are aging and along with age comes more health problems.” Reach Sara Seyydin at ______________________________________________________ There is help for businesses Complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act has been confusing for many local businesses, but some programs have been designed to help. According to Davis, California state building codes and ADA compliance requirements are separate. Many businesses that may be in compliance with state codes are still out of ADA compliance. No buildings are exempt from meeting ADA requirements, according to Davis. Davis said that makes many businesses targets without even realizing it. To help protect businesses from legal action for being out of ADA compliance the state created the Certified Access Specialists program. It gives businesses federal tax credits and legal protection while they create a plan to bring their building up to ADA standards. Once a business owner enters into a contract with a Certified Access Specialist their legal protection begins, according to Davis. Davis said any required improvements can be made over time, at the businesses owner’s own pace. She often finds violations that are free or will only cost a minimal amount to fix. Common problems in Auburn include bathrooms that aren’t handicap accessible and doors that aren’t marked with exit signs in Braille. ~Sara Seyydin