Local business leaders learn to address deluge of disability lawsuits
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – It’s a letter so unassuming, most recipients throw it away.
But the letter from Carmichael, Calif. attorney Scott Johnson could have expensive consequences for South Lake Tahoe property and business owners.
The letter typically states a business is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and asks the recipient to bring the property up to code or provide Johnson with documents detailing the business’s ADA compliance.
Johnson, who is disabled, often follows up with demands for money, encourages people to pay him to get a Certified Access Specialist report or files a lawsuit claiming his civil rights have been violated, according to Catherine Corfee, an ADA access attorney who spoke at a Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce seminar at Inn by the Lake on Thursday morning.
“That’s not true, they just want your money most of the time,” Corfee said. Johnson typically wants $4,500 to $12,000 to go away, Corfee said.
But paying him won’t solve a business’ compliance issues, and Corfee recommended against giving Johnson a dime.
Johnson was not available for comment on Thursday, according to a woman who answered the phone at his business, Disabled Access Prevents Injury, Inc.
The chamber hosted the seminar in response to more than 40 businesses on the California side of the South Shore receiving letters from Johnson in the past six months, said Chamber President Betty “B” Gorman on Thursday.
About 40 people attended the seminar. About half raised their hand when Corfee asked if they had received letters from Johnson.
“People are already stretched pretty thin trying to survive in this business environment,” Gorman said. “I wanted to help them.”
The goal wasn’t to deny people with disabilities access to area businesses, but give owners information on their options and what they can do if they receive a letter from Johnson, Gorman said.
Johnson’s more than 2,000 ADA lawsuits throughout California are “extortion” via a law that was intended to help people with disabilities who legitimately want to patronize businesses, Corfee said Thursday.
The attorney said it is critical for businesses owners to respond to Johnson’s letter with a letter indicating they’ll look at the business’ ADA compliance and let Johnson know about progress being made to bring the property into ADA compliance. Another important part of the letter: “Please don’t sue,” Corfee said.
“When you don’t respond, you’re going to get sued,” Corfee said.
California law allows people with disabilities to sue for emotional distress when ADA compliance issues prevent them from using a business, but the federal law only requires businesses to bring properties into compliance, Corfee said.
Having an ADA compliance plan and making progress on it before receiving a letter is an even better way to avoid ending up in a lawsuit over accessibility issues, according to Corfee.
“It will be so much better if you have the process of ADA compliance already started,” Corfee said.
“If they can prove they caused you to make changes, they win,” Corfee added.