Law Review: Serial ADA lawsuit filer sentenced for tax fraud (Opinion)
Americans with Disabilities Act plaintiff Scott Johnson was sentenced weeks ago by the U.S. District Court in Sacramento to 18 months of home detention and $250,000 in restitution after pleading guilty to filing a false tax return. Judge Mendez added a fine of $50,000.
The federal judge indicated he would have sentenced Johnson to prison had he not been a quadriplegic. I am not sure why the prosecutor went after Johnson’s income for 2013 only as opposed to the 19 other years he was filing lawsuits. Johnson clearly was not remorseful at his plea hearing, which the judge noted. Johnson responded by saying, “I’m truly sorry that I am here because of my taxes. I’m sorry,” and nothing more.
Johnson, a lawyer, filed thousands of ADA lawsuits, mostly in the Sacramento area, but dozens in the Tahoe-Truckee area, many of which our office defended. Johnson was considered an ADA hero by many. I can’t say I feel the same. In settling lawsuits, he and his lawyers seemed more interested in the money than improving access for the disabled. Some of his lawsuits were very minor technical violations of the rules. In my cases, he clearly had no intention of shopping at the businesses he sued, but he knew a technical violation when he saw one, trivial or not.
A disabled person who encounters a barrier to access to a store, restaurant, or other place of “public accommodation” may sue and seek recovery of his/her attorneys’ fees and damages of thousands of dollars per visit. Johnson reportedly filed more than 6,000 lawsuits since 2003, claiming one or more violations at each premise. He appears to have made millions of dollars. Johnson’s downfall is that he claimed the money made from the lawsuits was compensation for physical injury which does not require payment of income taxes. As a former IRS agent, he knew better.
Being prosecuted for not filing accurate tax returns has not slowed Johnson down. The Sacramento Bee reported he filed more than 1,000 lawsuits in the year following his indictment. Often filing dozens of suits per day. It remains unclear whether Johnson may continue to file ADA lawsuits even while he is restricted to his residence as ordered by the court. Exceptions to his home confinement include traveling for employment, education, religious services and court appearances. The court order requires Johnson not to seek out violations of the ADA while he is in home detention, but who knows what barriers he may encounter going to work or court. He may file ADA actions after his 18 months of home detention.
Having said that, many businesses are not ADA compliant, which is unacceptable. I recommend business owners pay for an ADA compliance report conducted by a CASp inspector. Being familiar with ADA parking lot standards, I often point out ADA non-compliance to business owners who I don’t even know. They are always appreciative. The law should encourage compliance and actual accessibility, not monetary reward for serial filers looking to pad their own pockets.
Jim Porter is a retired attorney from the Porter Simon law firm. Porter Simon has offices in Truckee, California and Reno. These are Jim’s personal opinions. Jim’s practice areas included real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, family law, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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