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Local business owners wonder about motive for ADA lawsuits

Attorney says tools available to help bring compliance
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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Several Auburn business owners are voicing concerns about recent Americans with Disabilities Act compliance lawsuits. Pete Aroz Sr., owner of Pistol Pete’s Brew and Cue and Liquor Outlet in Auburn, said he is currently being sued for non-ADA compliance and has also filed a counter lawsuit against Scott Johnson, the Carmichael quadriplegic attorney suing him. Aroz said he completely redid the parking lot in front of the businesses after receiving a letter from Johnson. “We got involved a couple years ago with him,” Aroz said. “He sent me a letter that said our access didn’t comply with the ADA. So, I took that to imply we had some issues with the entrances to our shopping center and parking spaces that were designed for handicapped people.” Aroz said a couple of months ago he got a letter from Johnson, who said he was suing Aroz for non-ADA compliance at Pistol Pete’s and Studio 55, one of Aroz’s tenants in the center. Aroz said the lawsuit states that the restroom in Pistol Pete’s is not ADA-compliant. Aroz said he is counter-suing for abuse of process. “What that means is this Scott Johnson is using the ADA law to take advantage of small business for his own gain,” Aroz said. “He offered to settle with me for $6,000. He said he would drop the case for $6,000. He could care less if we complied to the law. That’s all he wants to do is collect this, to me it’s, totally illegal money.” Aroz said several other businesses in Auburn have faced similar lawsuits, including some from Johnson. “He has a canned law presentation,” Aroz said. “It’s like 21 pages. It’s verbally verbatim. The only thing he changes is the name of the person he’s suing.” Randy Hicks, owner of Rowdy Randy’s on High Street, said he has been sued three times for similar issues, including one case with Johnson. Hicks is currently in a lawsuit with an attorney out of Eureka. “I just finished Scott Johnson about four or five months ago,” Hicks said. “I was in a suit with him for a little over a year.” Hicks said Johnson said there were several parts of his business that were non-compliant, but federal court found only one. “He’s got dozens,” Hicks said. “There is not one particular one. At the end of the day we had no violations other than a white line on our handicap (parking) had to be painted blue.” Hicks said Johnson said Rowdy Randy’s bathrooms were not compliant, but Hicks questions the way Johnson got photos of the facilities. “We had our bathrooms locked, and yet he had pictures of our bathroom from a position he can’t get to because he can’t stand,” Hicks said. “So we said, ‘Hey you must have broken in, because our bathrooms are locked.’” Both Aroz and Hicks said they have heard Johnson has assistants go into businesses for him, and both said they haven’t seen Johnson come into their businesses. Johnson said there is a basic reason why he is suing Pistol Pete’s. “Because it’s 2011 and I can’t get my wheelchair into their toilet stall,” Johnson said. “There are other issues, but the guts of it is they have a restroom which people in wheelchairs can’t use.” Johnson said his goal with the lawsuit and related ones is to gain disabled access. Johnson said he has filed over 1,000 lawsuits for non-ADA compliance, but he did not know how many he has filed in Auburn. He also said he did not know how much money he has collected as a result of the lawsuits. After his initial letter Pistol Pete’s was given plenty of time to make the repairs, Johnson said. “On the Pistol Pete’s (lawsuit), they had received my notice and they had plenty of time to fix it,” he said. “They chose not to. They chose not to get a report or have anybody look at it. (The parking lot) was part of the original issue, yes. It still is. They did some changes but they didn’t do them right. And that’s typical of a lot of business. They view disabled access as a handicapped parking space and that’s it, and there’s a lot more to it.” Johnson said he encourages all businesses to have Certified Access Specialist Program, or CASp, certifications to ensure they are in compliance. Johnson said the tools to help businesses be in compliance are out there, they just have to look for them. “Why is it 2011 and they are still in non-compliance?” Johnson asked. “Why don’t more businesses have the CASp certification? You will never have a business that I sue come forward and say, ‘We were compliant,’ because I don’t sue people who are compliant. All their reactions are counter reactions. They need someone to blame, so they focus on me rather than focusing on the barriers that they have with their businesses.” Lori Sardella, owner of Foster’s Freeze on Grass Valley Highway in Auburn, said she has received a letter from Johnson about not being in compliance, but the letter was not specific about what the problems in the restaurant were. “The best thing is pretty much to respond and say you’re working on it and to start working on it,” Sardella said. Sardella said she would do anything for their customers, but it is difficult financially to make the repairs. “Then you don’t have the funding for other things that might need to be done,” she said. “I think it’s good to have some updates, but I think some of the stuff is really hard.” Sardella said she thinks Johnson’s goal is not really about getting ADA compliance. “He doesn’t do it with the intent of really trying to help people,” Sardella said. “He does it with the intent of he’s making money off of it. I just think it’s a shame that there are people out there like that, but there are a lot of good people that work together, and help each other and that is all we can do to help business keep going.” Reach Bridget Jones at bridgetj@goldcountrymedia.com