ADA compliance: Frequent filer of lawsuits is making his rounds in Truckee | SierraSun.com

ADA compliance: Frequent filer of lawsuits is making his rounds in Truckee

Jason Shueh and Adam Jensen
Sierra Sun

Jason Shueh/Sierra SunRichard's Motel on Donner Lake is just one of the many businesses that could be potentially sued over Americans with Disability Act compliance issues. Attorney Scott Johnson, based in Carmichael, Calif., has pursued more than 1,000 lawsuits against large and small businesses across the state.

TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; Some have labeled him irksome, while others see him as a tireless advocate for the rights of disabled individuals and#8212; whatever the stance, Scott Johnson has come to the region with numerous potential disability-related lawsuits in tow.

Johnson, a quadriplegic attorney known for his numerous Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits, has begun initial lawsuit proceedings against Donner Lake Village Resort, Ace Mountain Hardware and Sports and Richard’s Motel, among other businesses around Truckee.

Although he operates out of Carmichael, Calif., Johnson is known around the state, especially locally in South Lake Tahoe, for a bounty of ADA lawsuits, which typically begin with a simple letter to businesses informing them they are not in ADA compliance and to bring the property up to code or provide documents verifying compliance with federal regulations.

His correspondence is usually followed up with a demand for money through a settlement, payment for a Certified Access Specialist report or a lawsuit where Johnson claiming his civil rights have been violated.

Greg Havorka, president of Ace Mountain Hardware and Sports in Truckee, described Johnson’s practices as and#8220;shadyand#8221; and said his store was sent a letter by Johnson in February 2009, saying the store was out of compliance.

and#8220;We sent a certified letter asking specifically what problems he had seen, and we never received any communication from him until we were notified that he was going to sue us,and#8221; Havorka said.

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Havorka said he is not surprised by the lack of communication.

and#8220;The whole way he operates is pretty shady, so him not responding seems like the way he operates,and#8221; he said.

Havorka said the store has not officially been served by Johnson; yet, he expects it will soon. He said other Truckee businesses have also confirmed they have been sent similar letters, and they have asked Mountain Hardware for a recommendation on how to proceed.

and#8220;I tell them you have to approach it individually, because for a small operator, if you can negotiate down to a few thousand dollars, it’s advisable,and#8221; Havorka said. and#8220;Because as soon as you hire a lawyer, you’re going to be spending that money.and#8221;

Considering many of the aging commercial buildings in town, Havorka said he sees Truckee businesses as easy victims for ADA lawsuits.

and#8220;We’re not even sure we’re ADA non-compliant,and#8221; he said. and#8220;Johnson’s demands are not realistic under these conditions.and#8221;

Evan Benjaminson, a spokesman for Granite Peak Management, which operates Donner Lake Village Resort, said the resort also received a letter from Johnson in February 2009.

And, like Mountain Hardware, Benjaminson said Donner Lake sent a letter of inquiry to Johnson, asking what his ADA concerns were.

and#8220;We didn’t hear from Johnson until we began receiving notifications from other ADA attorneys telling us we were sued,and#8221; Benjaminson said.

The news is shocking, Benjaminson said, considering the resort has hosted disabled athletic competitions in the past and has never received any complaints regarding handicapped access.

and#8220;We’re prepared to be compliant as we possibly can be, and we will seek proper representation,and#8221; he said.

In a recent interview with the Sierra Sun, Johnson said he’s been scouting business in the Truckee area for about three years.

Though businesses are upset, Johnson said they usually like to play the victim in order to hide a lack of ADA compliance.

and#8220;You never hear them argue that barriers don’t exist and#8212; because they do,and#8221; Johnson said. and#8220;They got to have some type of response because basically they’re discriminating.and#8221;

Regarding Mountain Hardware, Johnson said he did respond to Havorka in the form of a referral to CAS consultants (Certified Access Specialist) who could help the business identify the needed upgrades. Johnson said he did not hear back from the store after referring them to the ADA consultants. Specifically, he said Mountain Hardware’s parking lot and bathrooms need to be updated for compliance.

In respect to Donner Lake Village Resort, Johnson said he never heard back, and the resort needs to update its parking in addition to having at least one housing unit with a roll-in shower for wheel chairs.

and#8220;It’s just a shame people wait for my letters,and#8221; he said.

Johnson said owning older buildings, such as the many that are in Truckee, is no excuse for not upgrading to basic ADA standards.

The attorney said increasing access is the goal of his actions, but said they are also his primary source of income.

and#8220;There is a profit,and#8221; Johnson said. and#8220;I am an attorney. Attorneys go to law school. Attorneys make a profit.and#8221;

He declined to say how much he makes per settlement or annually, but the potential profits add up quickly.

Catherine Corfee, an ADA access attorney who spoke to South Shore businesses owners this summer, said Johnson typically wants between $4,500 and $12,000 for a settlement.

Johnson has filed suits around the state. Federal court records show he has been involved in more than 1,400 court actions in the California Eastern District Court alone since 2004.

The numbers could double count actions where is considered both a plaintiff and the attorney, Johnson said, adding he does not keep records of the number of suits he files or the numbers of letters he sends.

David Kelly, the executive director of the South Tahoe Chamber of Commerce and Tahoe Area Coordinating Council for the Disabled, said he has received more than 100 phone calls from South Shore business owners who have received letters from Johnson since the start of the summer.

The prospects of lawsuits against small businesses have already created a backlash against the disabled and the enforcement of disability laws, said Kelly, a Polio survivor.

Kelly said the South Shore is a and#8220;very hardand#8221; place to live for people with disabilities, but called Johnson’s tactics and#8220;wrong.and#8221;

The ADA and California access laws have been critical to the improving the lives of the disabled, as well as senior citizens, Kelly said.

and#8220;It has made it possible for people to live and work independent of social security, welfare and everything else,and#8221; Kelly said.

Enforcement methods that channeled money toward making improvements at businesses, rather than spending thousands on settlements and attorney’s fees, would be and#8220;idealand#8221; Kelly said.

Johnson contends that is exactly what he is doing.

Lawsuits filed by disabled people can include huge requests for compensation because California law allows litigants to pursue damages for each day a business is out of compliance. The law has allowed for and#8220;shockingand#8221; amounts in some of these cases, Johnson said.

and#8220;I have never requested that and I never will,and#8221; Johnson said. and#8220;I don’t think it’s needed.and#8221;

Johnson said the best way for business owners to avoid receiving a letter or becoming involved in a lawsuit is to make strides toward access.

and#8220;Be proactive, get a CAS inspection,and#8221; Johnson said. and#8220;Don’t do it because I’m asking you to, do it because it’s the right thing to do.and#8221;