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Foresthill businesses hit by ADA lawsuits

Johnson says it?s about access, not money
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Joan Elliott said a quadriplegic attorney used the wheelchair ramp and dined on a steak in her restaurant before sending a letter threatening to sue her for being out of compliance with Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines. Elliott, who owns Ore Cart Steakhouse and Red Dirt Saloon, says she and several other business owners in Foresthill are the latest victims in Scott Johnson?s tactic of systematically searching and suing towns across California for ADA compliance issues. Johnson, a Carmichael-based lawyer, says as a quadriplegic, he is concerned about access and is being made a scapegoat for business owners who don?t want to take responsibility for being out of compliance. He has sued many businesses in Auburn, including Lou La Bonte?s, Pet Xing and Pistol Pete?s Elliott said Johnson alleged the wheelchair ramp is too steep, but she said the previous owners renovated the 150-year-old building 17 years ago to meet ADA guidelines. She said change needs to occur at the federal level for businesses to get relief from what they call extortion. ?Our biggest issue in this town is that the laws that protect us are state laws and we don?t have any protection in federal court,? Elliott said. She said since she doesn?t own the building, the lawsuit probably won?t impact her, but she is concerned for the building?s owner and neighboring business owners. Foresthill Joe?s Coffee Shop, Warton?s Market and Over Easy At the Starlite are among other businesses that are being sued by Johnson Sara Schnuck, owner of Foresthill Joe?s, said she hired a certified access specialist to identify areas of non-compliance and create a plan for fixing them. That is the only way for a business to legally protect itself from being sued for non-compliance. The initial report was about $1,200 she said and that doesn?t include the changes she may have to make. ?They are upset,? Schnuck said of the way business owners feel in town about the lawsuits. ?Everyone is afraid of what it?s going to do to them here.? She and Elliot agree that in a small town coming up with the money for changes is difficult for everyone. Johnson said while many people view him as an extortionist he always gives businesses notice that they are in violation well in advance to give them a chance to correct the violations. He said he has never put a business out of business and businesses legally only have to fix what they can afford. ?I have not maintained any cases against with a (certified access specialist) inspection. That is the best business insurance out there. Have an inspection performed and you won?t get sued,? Johnson said. While some people may view him negatively, he said he is proud of the work he is doing and it is not about the money. ?I get extremely frustrated when I am trying to access a place and I am coming across barriers that can be removed,? Johnson said. ?I am glad when businesses do these alterations. Not only am I getting access, but thousands of others as well.? Schnuck said she was never told what aspects of her business were in violation, making it an expensive process to diagnose and fix her facility. Johnson said many businesses owners are blaming him for their lack of compliance. ?I don?t see myself as a bad guy,? Johnson said. ?I am not the one breaking the law.? Elliott said she does want her building to be accessible to all people, but believes for Johnson the lawsuits are all about money. ?It?s not about fixing this,? Elliott said. ?It?s about money. This is all it?s about.? Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com, or follow her on Twitter @AJ_News.