Pioneering disabilities rights attorney explains the ideas behind the Americans with Disabilities Act
A Sacramento pool hall that hosted billiards players from around the world for 50 years closed last Wednesday after its owner said he faced litigation from a serial filer of disability access lawsuits.
In May, Jointed Cue Billiards was sued by Scott Johnson, a quadriplegic attorney from Carmichael who has filed lawsuits against thousands of businesses in California. A Scott Johnson is listed as a plaintiff in more than 2,000 federal lawsuits filed in the Eastern District of California, which includes the Sacramento area, court records show.
Johnson has sued businesses in California alleging they were violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, then routinely settled with defendants out of court for $4,000 to $6,000, according to a past investigation by The Sacramento Bee. Under California law, ADA violations require businesses to pay at least $4,000 for each visit a disabled plaintiff made to the property, plus attorney fees.
“He’s using that as an advantage to benefit himself,” Jointed Cue owner Mike Murphy said. “Nothing this guy ever does is to benefit the disabled community. He’s using (the law) to benefit himself.”
Johnson said in the lawsuit that he visited Jointed Cue five times, so Murphy would have to pay $20,000, plus at least $60,000 to remodel the building — which he doesn’t own — to make it ADA-compliant. Instead of fighting the lawsuit or settling with Johnson, Murphy said he made the difficult decision to shut down.
“He’s going to try to get me to pay, but good luck with that,” Murphy said. “He’s not getting anything from me.”
Johnson declined to comment, but his lawyer, Russell Handy, said Johnson files his suits to improve conditions for disabled people.
“The fact that the ADA was passed 28 years ago and that businesses still flagrantly violate the law is frustrating to him and many persons who use wheelchairs for mobility,” Handy said. “As for making money for himself — Mr. Johnson has never stated this as a primary motivation but I cannot help but believe that it is gratifying to Mr. Johnson that he is compensated for his effort and for the infringement upon his civil rights.”
Murphy said that he’s sure Johnson has never entered his pool hall or attached restaurant on Fruitridge Road.
“He’ll say that he was in the car and he sent his nephew to go walk inside to see if there’s a ramp and see if there’s ADA seating,” Murphy said. “These people will walk into an establishment, secretly take out a tape measure and take measurements.”
Handy said Johnson has visited Jointed Cue and has eaten lunch at the restaurant there.
Among the alleged ADA violations: The bathroom is too small for disabled people to access, the countertops are too low, and the front door is too narrow for someone in a wheelchair to enter. The suit also alleges that the disabled parking space marker has faded to the point of being useless.
“These inaccessible conditions denied the plaintiff full and equal access and caused him difficulty, discomfort and embarrassment,” the lawsuit says.
Murphy said people with walkers, canes and wheelchairs played pool at Jointed Cue all the time.
“There’s a guy who I serve breakfast to every morning in a wheelchair, and there’s never an issue,” he said.
Handy said that’s no defense.
“The fact that persons with disabilities are able to overcome illegal barriers, i.e., parking in regular spaces, and jostle their way into a business, does not change the fact that a business is violating rights,” he said.
Stalled legislation to address ADA lawsuits
For years, Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, has proposed laws that would discourage ADA lawsuit abuse, but to no avail. He said two recent proposals died that would have given business owners several months to fix ADA violations before lawsuits move forward.
Disability advocates have opposed legislation that reduces their ability to sue, Mathis said. He added that the targets of serial filers are often immigrant business owners who struggle to comprehend complicated disability laws and were hesitant to testify for his legislation.
“The last thing I want to see is somebody with a disability have their rights taken away,” said Mathis, who became disabled after being injured in an explosion in Iraq when he was in the National Guard. But “there’s got to be a balance between those of us in the disabled community and with business owners.”
Mathis sees serial filers as a distraction from actual disability advocacy.
“It makes it really hard when you have a predatory lawsuit that de-legitimizes real instances of disability negligence,” he said. “It’s a shame that people are turning this into a way to prey on other people.”
He said when serial filers settle with businesses out of court, the ADA violations they identified are never fixed.
“And if that’s not happening, then this law is failing our disabled community,” he said.
Mathis is now trying to bring the disabled community and business owners together to write a new bill that both parties will back next year.
Susan Chandler, president of nonprofit Californians for Disability Rights, said she and many in the disabled community oppose Mathis’ legislation because businesses have had years to comply with ADA requirements.
“They do not need extra time,” Chandler said. “If they didn’t know about (the violation), they should have known about it. If it’s a new building, then the architect should be sued. There’s no excuse for not having the proper codes met.”
Chandler said disabled people need the ability to sue because the ADA left it up to individuals to ensure compliance.
“The laws didn’t give anybody enforcement power except the people who it affects,” she said.
Business owners may not consider doors or bathrooms that are an inch or two off of ADA standards to be significant violations, she said, but “for some people with disabilities, two inches are as good as a mile.”
Chandler agreed with Mathis that attorneys who settle grievances out of court can be unhelpful if violations aren’t fixed.
But Handy said Johnson ensures his settlements always include an agreement “that the business must remove the unlawful barriers within a definite time frame.”
Handy agrees that serial filing “does create negative publicity and it does turn people off.” But it is also effective at making businesses comply with the ADA, he said.
“The fear of a lawsuit is a tremendous motivation to figure out and comply with the law,” he said. “I am convinced that serial litigation has been the greatest force for the actual installation of parking spaces, ramps, hand rails, counters, etc. than any other thing.”
‘Mecca’ for pool players is gone
In recent years, Johnson has focused on Bay Area businesses, according to The Mercury News of San Jose, which chronicled a series of his ADA lawsuits in 2015. A recent article in The Daily Post showed he’s been suing businesses in Palo Alto this summer.
But Johnson hasn’t abandoned Sacramento. Jointed Cue Billiards, which opened in 1968, was a “mecca” for pool players across the country, said Murphy, who took over as owner in 2013.
“Everybody kind of makes their pilgrimage to the Jointed Cue at some point in their life,” said Murphy, noting that it brought people from all backgrounds, ages and races together.
Handy said Johnson’s goal is never to close a business and described Jointed Cue’s closure as an “anomaly” that he’s heard of only a few times out of thousands of ADA cases that he’s litigated.
“The fact that the business has closed its doors immediately after the lawsuit was filed makes it suspect, in my mind, that this lawsuit caused any such thing,” Handy said.
Murphy’s Facebook post announcing the pool hall’s closure generated a flood of reactions from shocked and upset patrons; more than 300 voiced their dismay.
“Jointed Cue Billiards is a staple in our community. It is LEGEND, and will be extremely missed,” Patrocina DeOllas wrote. “This is a sad day for Sacramento and every one of us who love this place. I am deeply saddened. Such wonderful people and staff here, as well as the food.”
There’s still a glimmer of hope for Jointed Cue. Murphy thinks he’s found a friend who might be willing to take over the business and foot the bill for ADA repairs. The process would take months, but the pool hall could potentially re-open in the future.
“I have a pretty good feeling,” he said. “Just keep your fingers crossed — to be continued.”
The Bee’s Sam Stanton contributed to this report.