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Local businesses discuss ADA lawsuits

Architect says program can help avoid going to court
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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After the Auburn City Council expressed concerns over lawsuits being brought against local businesses, some Placer County establishments are talking about their experiences. And recently a Lincoln business was sued by an attorney well known for filing ADA-related lawsuits. An Auburn architect said there are ways to avoid being sued for Americans with Disabilities Act non-compliance. At the June 27 City Council meeting, four of the five council members directed staff to look into how many businesses had been contacted by Carmichael attorney Scott Johnson. City Manager Bob Richardson has said there are a couple of things city representatives can do in the situation. “One, the city has worked with the Chamber (of Commerce) and business associations,” Richardson said. “They have brought in experts to help educate their membership as to how to both get into compliance and to deal with lawsuits, should they occur. Also, the City Council can once again, or continue, lobbying both their state and federal representatives to amend those laws to be far more reasonable than they are today.” Scott Lance, co-owner of Auburn Autohaus on Grass Valley Highway, said the business is currently involved in a lawsuit with Johnson. “His suit with us indicates that our disabled parking has no lane next to it to unload a wheelchair in, which is true, it doesn’t, and we are actually looking to resolve that,” Lance said Wednesday. Lance said the business did not receive a letter asking it to come into compliance, and the document could have gone to the previous owner. “I don’t know if he sent a letter to the previous owner, the folks we bought the business from,” Lance said. “That is what he claims to have done. The previous owner doesn’t claim to remember a letter.” Lance said that now the deadline has passed, Johnson is able to sue the business, and is asking for a certain amount. “His suit stipulates that he wants $4,000, I’ll just tell you that, and I don’t know where that is going to end up,” Lance said. Sergio Reyes, whose aunt owns the Los Gallos Taqueria in Lincoln, said Johnson is currently suing the business and the building’s owner. Reyes said his aunt is working to make the necessary improvements to the access at the front of the building. “She’s acting on that as soon as possible so the gentleman who is bringing up the lawsuit can see there are improvements being done as we speak,” Reyes said. “Los Gallos is going to become ADA compliant fully. It’s a little establishment, it was not really built for a mass restaurant or anything.” Reyes said it is difficult financially for his aunt to pay for the changes. “The economy has hit her, and there is competition here in Lincoln,” Reyes said. “And she can’t afford to hire big contractors to do the job.” Reyes said the changes are being made by friends and family members who are licensed contractors. Johnson said because the case has already begun, the improvements won’t change its process, and statutory minimum damages have now kicked in because of the case. “Any time I file a case it’s because they have been given notice, they haven’t fixed the property and there are architectural barriers,” Johnson said. “This is a restaurant that has a step. Every time I bring a suit they are going to have to fix the problem. It’s not about paying me and having me go away. It’s about fixing the property and providing the access first.” Michelle Davis, an Auburn-based architect and Certified Handicap Access Specialist, said there is a way businesses can avoid being sued with the state’s Certified Access Specialist program, or CASp. “Basically the politicians wanted to do something that is a little more business friendly without taking away of disabled people getting access to stores,” Davis said. “They came up with this law where you get a CASp, they survey your building, figure out what is correct, what is not correct. Business owners should get a detailed report … then come up with a plan on what is a reasonable modification, what can be fixed, maybe what can’t be fixed.” Davis said once this is done businesses get a state-issued certificate to hang in the window and can make the changes on their schedules. “It’s when they can afford to do it and that is the wonderful thing,” she said. Davis said at that point even if businesses get sued, they can request a 90-day stay in court and meet with a judge, who will often throw a case out if an owner has the CASp certificate. Davis said the cost of a CASp survey can vary depending on the size and complexity of the building. Her lowest evaluation was $350 and her most expensive was $20,000, which was for a large hotel complex. Davis said she thinks Johnson’s approach isn’t a positive way to get compliance. “I do think he is having a negative affect, yes,” she said. “He is creating a lot of anger, and the anger is creating resistance to do anything. I think most business owners really want to do the right thing. I think they want as many customers as they can get in their buildings.” Johnson said he gives people a chance to make changes before filing lawsuits, and feels a lot more people would be upset if local building departments had the power to enforce compliance. “The whole point is it’s been the law now for 20 years, so why are they complaining now when they are being asked to comply?” he asked. Reach Bridget Jones at bridgetj@goldcountrymedia.com ------------------------------------------------------ To find out more about the CASp program, visit calcasp.com or dgs.ca.gov/dsa