California has long struggled to find the right balance between making sure the disabled have access to public places and protecting businesses from burdensome lawsuits.
After lengthy negotiations, advocates for the disabled, trial attorneys and business groups came up with a compromise that took effect in January 2009. It created ground rules to allow businesses to be certified by the state as being in compliance.
Unfortunately, there are still some lawyers who are aggressively going after businesses, sending "pay now or pay later" letters that demand settlements to avoid lawsuits with significantly higher damages. There are also reports of abuses where someone will allege repeated violations of the identical problem at $4,000 per violation before filing suit.
The goal seems to be more about making a quick buck than ensuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Responding to loud complaints about these continued "drive-by" lawsuits, both the Assembly and Senate judiciary committees are scheduled to hear bills today.
A couple of Republican-backed measures go too far in trying to shield businesses from "vexatious litigation."
Much wiser is a narrower bill that is being offered by top Senate Democrat Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and former Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga.
Their Senate Bill 1186 would ban "demand for money" letters and would require attorneys to send a notice letter listing any alleged construction-related violations at least 30 days before filing suit. That would give businesses a chance to fix the problem before someone could run up the meter on violations.
The legislation would also protect mom-and-pop stores by requiring landlords to disclose on their leases whether their strip mall, office building or other commercial property is state certified as in compliance with accessibility laws. That way, the small businesses would know what they're getting into, and wouldn't get strong-armed into writing checks unnecessarily.
Finally, it would state the Legislature's intent to resolve conflicts between state and federal accessibility standards that are also spawning unnecessary lawsuits.
The judiciary committees should fine-tune this bill and dump the more extreme legislation.
Assembly Bill 1610 by Donald Wagner, an Irvine Republican, and Senate Bill 1163 by Mimi Walters, a Laguna Niguel Republican, would require attorneys to give notice of any violation, then give businesses 30 days to respond and another 120 days to fix any violations before a lawsuit could be filed. That's too long a grace period to follow long-established law.
Assembly Bill 1878, introduced by Beth Gaines, a Rocklin Republican, is similar, but targeted to small businesses.
Disability Rights California adamantly opposes the broader bills, but is willing to work with Steinberg and Dutton on the narrower one. It objects to any changes that would delay and limit the enforcement of hard-won civil rights that allow the disabled to fully take part in social and economic life.
Politically, however, the bills do fall neatly into the narrative that California is unfriendly to business and that stupid laws and frivolous lawsuits are getting in the way of job creation and economic revival.
Yes, there are some regulations run amok, but not every rule on business is outlandish. On access for the disabled, the Steinberg-Dutton bill is far closer to the balance California should be seeking.