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Carmichael man files suit against Auburn restaurant alleging Disabilities Act violations

Sierra Grill owner says eatery in compliance with Placer County codes
By: Bruce Warren Journal Staff Writer
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In just five months, he’s filed 74 lawsuits against small businesses in the greater Sacramento area, and his latest suit is filed against the Sierra Grill on Lincoln Way in Auburn. Scott Norris Johnson, who resides in Carmichael, has filed these suits in regard to violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Johnson is not only a quadriplegic, he is an attorney, and at $2,500 and up per lawsuit, his estimated earnings are more than $200,000 in five months. “Since February of this year, he’s filed 79 lawsuits through June, but there are many more lawsuits prior to that,” said attorney Catherine Corfee of Corfee Stone and Associates in Carmichael. “I’ve never even seen this guy,” said Sierra Grill owner Mark Haddad. However, in a suit filed by Johnson on May 1, 2008 with the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, he claims to have visited the Sierra Grill three times. In the court papers, Johnson alleges illegal “portions of public facilities which are not accessible to disabled persons, who require the use of a wheelchair or wheelchair lift equipped van or is only able to use such portions with undue difficulty.” In Johnson’s lawsuit he claims he sent Haddad a letter in August 2007 citing various violations of the ADA, such as no automatically closing bathroom doors and space restrictions on two existing handicap parking spots, which were marked with the standard handicap insignia on the blue metal signs on top of a two different poles. “He claims he sent me a letter, but I honestly don’t remember receiving a letter,” Haddad said. “The problem he claims involved the disabled parking spaces,” Haddad said. “He told me my bathroom needs an automatic door closer.” The shopping plaza where the Sierra Grill is located recently invested $20,000 to bring the entire parking lot up to ADA codes, Haddad said. After the improvements were made, Johnson called Haddad, and wanted more. “OK, what’s the problem now,” Haddad replied. “He said just give me $5,000 and we’ll call it even.” Johnson has an unlisted phone number in Carmichael, and did not return repeated messages left on his cell phone. He also did not reply to an e-mail that asked if he has ever visited the Sierra Grill. Sometimes, Johnson has asked for as much as $15,000 from smaller businesses that are already facing a struggling economy, according to Corfee. Corfee has represented clients, who have had suits filed against them by Johnson. Thus far, he has been working the Sacramento, Carmichael, Citrus Heights, Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove communities, she said. Johnson drives a white van that is fully equipped with hand controls and an automated wheelchair lift. Some businesses that he has filed lawsuits against thus far are restaurants, auto parts stores, dental offices, doctors’ offices and mortgage places. “He did a lot of doughnut shops one time,” Corfee said. Apparently, Johnson finds what Corfee views as minor infractions of the ADA codes and then he files a lawsuit against that business. Haddad said his restaurant was approved by Placer County authorities in regard to handicap access, but Johnson is going by ADA regulations. “We know the codes extremely well,” Corfee said. “Then we inspect it and he (Johnson) reviews it. He generally accepts it and to date, if those people make the changes, in at least five of my cases, he did not sue.” Johnson has even targeted some hotels in the Lake Tahoe area. According to Corfee, Johnson will mail the hotel a letter asking if the facility is handicapped equipped. However, he leaves out who he is. “He does not disclose that he is an attorney or what the violation is when he sends letters to businesses,” Corfee said. “There are handicapped people that are furious with him.” Two representatives from the Placer Independent Resource Services, Jeff Cowen and Tim Cooper, recently visited the Sierra Grill and wrote Haddad a letter on their findings. Cooper is a quadriplegic and uses a large powered wheelchair. “There were no apparent practical problems with the interior of your restaurant,” Cooper writes. “The restrooms were large and included accessible stalls and sufficient room for easy maneuvering into and within the restroom.” The letter did mention issues of fading paint on the designated handicap parking spaces, but the letter was dated June 18, 2008. Since that time, the spaces have been clearly marked. “We were very pleased with your understanding and support of full accessibility for people with disabilities,” Cowen and Cooper concluded in their letter. Patrick Kenneally, an Auburn resident, is a quadraplegic who is not pleased with what Johnson is doing. “We got to get a grip on this,” Kenneally said. “He’s not helping the quads. I don’t support this guy at all.” Kenneally is particularly concerned, because he drives a white van and does not want to be confused with Johnson. What the Sacramento court decides remains to be seen. Haddad has already invested another $4,000 in lawyer fees to plead his case. The Journal’s Bruce Warren can be reached at brucew@goldcountrymedia.com, or comment at AuburnJournal.com.