Politics & Government

Senate embraces reform blunting ADA predatory lawsuits

The owner of The Barbecue Pit, Roy Mercado, stands in front of his restaurant in August and explains changes he made to his parking lot after being hit with an ADA lawsuit. Senate Bill 251 gives businesses 30 days to fix violations.
The owner of The Barbecue Pit, Roy Mercado, stands in front of his restaurant in August and explains changes he made to his parking lot after being hit with an ADA lawsuit. Senate Bill 251 gives businesses 30 days to fix violations. Merced Sun-Star file

Small businesses vulnerable to predatory lawsuits based on disability access could get some help from a bill that passed the Senate on Wednesday with a unanimous 40-0 vote.

“It’s one step,” said Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, a Manteca Democrat, who threw support to another senator’s bill when her more aggressive legislation failed to get traction.

Relief provided by Senate Bill 251, by Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, would be restricted to small businesses fitting a narrow description – those who correct minor violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act within 15 days. It also would help any company, large or small, that commissions a state-certified inspection and gets sued before making upgrades.

More than 60 businesses have been slapped with ADA-based lawsuits in the past couple of years in Stanislaus and Merced counties. Some say the lawsuits amount to extortion by professional victims working with unscrupulous attorneys. A few companies closed rather than fight in court or buckle to settlement demands for tens of thousands of dollars.

Roth’s legislation features tax credits of up to $5,000 for small businesses constructing improvements to make life easier for disabled customers.

By comparison, legislation authored by Republican Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen would provide a $250 tax credit toward the cost of hiring an inspector to survey conditions at a business and suggest changes.

Olsen, Galgiani and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, all introduced ADA reform bills in the current session, each seeking“right to cure” provisions giving businesses time to fix violations. Facing stiff opposition, Gray withdrew his, Olsen’s was watered down and Galgiani let hers drift while focusing on Roth’s less ambitious bill.

If embraced in the Assembly, SB 251 could go to the governor’s desk for signing by late August or early September.

“For small businesses slapped with a lawsuit, relief can’t come soon enough,” Galgiani said Wednesday in a telephone interview between other votes on the Senate floor.

Although weaker than other reform legislation, the key to SB 251 is giving small businesses a window to cure minor violations, said Kim Stone, president of the Civil Justice Association of California.

“While we wish it were larger in scope, we’re happy that the Senate has seen fit to pass a bill that advocates that idea,” Stone said. “Previously, it’s never gotten that far.”

SB 251 defines a small business as having gross annual receipts of less than $1 million or fewer than 30 full-time workers. Minor violations include signs, color and condition of parking lot striping paint and yellow truncated domes alerting the sight-impaired to traffic lanes.

Among those suing local companies is Robert McCarthy, a pedophile from Arizona who has brought 15 lawsuits in Stanislaus and Merced counties among hundreds over the past 14 years throughout California.

Garth Stapley: (209) 578-2390

  Comments