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Business owners react to council support of ADA bill

Auburn Autohaus co-owner says settlement amount equal to entire payroll
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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Local business owners say they are glad the Auburn City Council is trying to bring about change when it comes to Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits. One business settled its lawsuit with Carmichael attorney Scott Johnson this last week and another said he is continuing to fight back. On Monday night the Auburn City Council approved sending a letter of support of Senate Bill 783, written by Sen. Bob Dutton. The bill failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 5, but Councilman Kevin Hanley, who proposed the council show its support for the legislation, said the bill or a similar one could come forward again in January. “I wanted to make sure that we could support the senator’s idea, whether he brings it up in January in its current version or whether he introduces a new one,” Hanley said. SB 783 said anyone wishing to file a lawsuit against a business for ADA non-compliance would have to make a clear list of the items needing improvement and give them to the business owner. After that the business owner would have 30 days to respond with how they intended to make the changes or to rebut the allegations. Business owners would have 120 days to make necessary improvements before a lawsuit could be filed. Hanley said he likes that the bill required specific issues to be listed so business owners would not be confused about what changes needed to be made. “I think that is what I read in the articles the Auburn Journal has produced is a lot of these businesses are getting vague, general boiler plate letters,” Hanley said. “So Scott Johnson or one of his employees, under this legislation, they would have to really look closely at the business and not send these boiler plate vague letters.” When the council voted to send the letter of support, Councilman Keith Nesbitt said he wanted to facilitate a meeting with local business owners and the City Attorney Michael Colantuono to discuss the options businesses have when it comes to the ADA law. The meeting could also include helping owners draft a letter to the State Bar of California to voice their thoughts about how the lawsuits are impacting them. “With the letter, the council sends a united voice that the local governing body sees somebody abusing their authority, or their knowledge or the law, and I think it’s important for us as the elected officials to protect our citizens from abuse and send a strong message that we want something done about it.” Johnson was unavailable for comment about the legislation or people’s reactions to it as of press time Friday. Mayor Bill Kirby said he thinks the bill was very reasonable and should be approved in the future. Kirby said the letter was a good way for the council to show its support of local businesses. “I think it’s important that all municipal entities support business in the most reasonable manner they can,” Kirby said. “I have no problems with the ADA regulations. People need to come into compliance, but they need to be given time to do it before they get hit with a lawsuit.” Scott Lance, co-owner of Auburn Autohaus on Grass Valley Highway, said the business settled with Johnson this last week, but he did not want to comment on the settlement amount. “We have settled with him, and I’ll just tell you the reason we settled with him was the attorney’s fees to fight him would have exceeded what I had to settle for,” Lance said. “The amount we had to settle for … I’ll just tell you it was easily equal to an entire payroll for my company.” Johnson said his landlord agreed to pay for the settlement. Lance said he was happy with the council’s decision. “I think it’s super they passed (sending the letter) and they are pushing to get that bill reintroduced,” Lance said. “I hope they can get legislation passed. I think what bothers me most about this isn’t really the fact that there is money that’s been spent. It’s the fact that the money spent won’t go toward furthering anything really for disabled people. It’s not going to buy someone who’s disabled a wheelchair who can’t afford one. It’s basically extortion money. That’s all it is.” Johnson has said that he donates to charities for the disabled community, but he did not know how much annually or how much he makes from ADA lawsuit settlements every year. Pete Aroz Sr. said the lawsuit Johnson filed against Pistol Pete’s in Auburn and the counter lawsuit Aroz filed are currently at a standstill, because Johnson said he needs time to find an attorney to represent him. Aroz said Johnson has offered to settle the lawsuit for $7,200. Aroz said he is happy with the council’s decision to support the legislation and thinks the community needs to get involved in the issue as much as possible. “I think it’s a start, and I really think it’s got to be continuous as far as the pressure being put on by the elected officials,” he said. “This is the kind of support I think the community needs to stop this guy, and stop him or any other attorney in the future that’s doing the same damn thing. The council is fine to start it but they have got to continue it.” Judi La Bonte, owner of Lou La Bonte’s, is currently in a lawsuit with Johnson, along with Pet Xing and Millenium Smoke Shop, which are in the same center as the restaurant. La Bonte said her attorney, Cris Vaughan, of Loomis, has answered Johnson’s complaint, but Vaughan couldn’t be reached Friday to comment on the case. La Bonte said she is glad the council is showing its support of potential legislation and holding an informational meeting. “I think it sounds like a fantastic idea because we are all kind of in the dark,” La Bonte said. “We don’t really know what (Johnson) has in mind for each business, and it’s concerning to all the small businesses.” La Bonte said she thinks legislation needs to be voted on sooner rather than later. “January is too long,” she said. “Something needs to be done right now. There are too many business people who are being affected and hurt by (Johnson).” Reach Bridget Jones at bridgetj@goldcountrymedia.com