SAN FRANCISCO — Scott Johnson calls himself a crusader for the disabled. The hundreds of small businesses he routinely sues call him a legal extortionist.
Welcome to the rough and tumble world of providing access to the disabled. At the heart of the matter is the American with Disabilities Act, the controversial federal law requiring a minimum level of access in all public places.
Disabled advocates say since no government agency enforces the law, that task has fallen to private attorneys who file lawsuits to compel the noncompliant to provide equal access to all. Because of a quirk in California law, the state stands out as a magnet for disabled-access lawsuits and several lawyers have made a name for themselves as frequent filers.
Few, though, are as prolific as Johnson.
Since 2004, Johnson has filed more than 1,000 boiler plate lawsuits in Sacramento federal court, slightly tweaking the documents to fit the target: a restaurant 's service counter is too high or an apartment complex doesn't have enough disabled parking. Just last week, the Carmichael lawyer filed more than two dozen lawsuits, mostly aimed at apartment complexes.
"I have a very personal interest in ensuring access," Johnson said. "I'm disabled."
A hit-and-run drunken driver left Johnson a quadriplegic in 1981 at the age of 19. Nonetheless, he went on to earn an undergraduate degree from California State University, Sacramento and his law degree from the McGeorge School of Law School at the University of Pacific. He said he's not married and has a 20-year-old son.
Johnson handled routine civil litigation during his first 13 years as an attorney. But he said his frustration, humiliation and anger over inaccessible public places inspired him to dedicate his practice to enforcing state and federal access laws.
His one-attorney law firm now has but one client: him.
His lawsuits always allege ADA and state access law violations. The state law accusations are vital to Johnson's success because California allows disabled plaintiffs to collect monetary damages while the ADA only provides for the fixing of the problem and attorneys' fees.
The vast majority of the Johnson's targets settle for roughly $2,000 to $6,000 each, and the lawyer puts many of his targets on monthly payment plans.
"Every case I file has merit," Johnson said. "They basically have to attack me rather than examine themselves."
Disabled advocates argue that many businesses won't provide access until they are sued.
"Most parking lots don't have properly striped spaces and that really interferes with my life," said paraplegic Margaret Johnson, advocacy director of Disability Rights California. Johnson was also named chairwoman in 2009 to the newly created California Commission on Disability Access, which was tasked by the Legislature to examine compliance issues. One of its goals is to determine the effectiveness of the state's Certified Access Specialist program, which trains access consultants to help businesses comply with access laws.
But Margaret Johnson concedes the consultancy program is still in its infancy.
Many merchants continue to struggle with compliance - or ignore it altogether - and hope they won't be on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
Those that do settle with Johnson grumble they were simply unlucky that Johnson crossed their paths. They argue that Johnson is exploiting the ADA and they settled to avoid the cost of litigation.
"There is no place in the world that can meet all the requirements all the time," said Dr. Allen Hassan, a Johnson target who has refused to settle his lawsuit so far. "He comes only to harass, not to improve humanity. He uses the law as a knife and sword rather than a shield to help humanity."
Critics of Johnson specifically and the ADA generally say they are upset with the attorney's tactics and not the quest for equal access for all.
They say Johnson and other lawyers like him actively seek out access violations rather than encountering them during their daily routines.
"It's unfortunate that he hit our spot," said Bill Money, who closed his Truckee restaurant in March after Johnson sued his landlord. Money said he couldn't afford to meet his landlord's demand to make the improvements spelled out in Johnson's law, so he closed the Donner Lake Kitchen in March.
Johnson spends much of his time in his 1997 Ford E350 van, modified with hand controls and a wheel chair lift, driving the Central Valley and visiting hundreds of restaurants, liquor stores, vet hospitals, apartment complexes, dentists, doctors' offices and small businesses of all sorts. He's filed lawsuits from South Lake Tahoe to Stockton, often blanketing a region first with letters warning merchants he's visited that he's uncovered alleged violations of the ADA. In his letters, Johnson threatens the businesses to upgrade their facilities or he's suing.
"Plaintiff's occupation is to cruise the streets of Sacramento and the surrounding area seeking out small businesses that may or may not be in compliance with handicapped parking standards and then possibly entering the establishment one time with the intent to file a lawsuit claiming emotional distress, and with no intention of doing any business with the establishment," Sacramento lawyer Robert Lorbeer wrote April 20 in defense of apartment owner Transpacific Development Co., one of Johnson's latest targets.
Lorbeer used the exact same wording in his defense of Tailpipes Smog Test Centers, Inc. in 2008 and in the roughly 120 Johnson lawsuits he has been hired to fight.
"My biggest problem with Scott Johnson is that he rarely ever goes into the businesses he sues," Lorbeer said. "Generally, all he does is drive by. Someone using Google earth in North Dakota could file the same lawsuits."
Johnson disputes that characterization. All of his lawsuits allege that he's attempted to enter every premises at least twice. He says if he hasn't actually gone through the front doors it's because an illegal barrier has prevented him from entering.
"The question shouldn't be why am I suing so many businesses," Johnson said. "The question is why are so many businesses not complying."