Thousands of lawsuits have been filed in California alleging disability violations.
Thousands of disability lawsuits have been filed by Orlando Garcia, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and co-plaintiff Brian Whitaker, a quadriplegic who also uses a wheelchair, against California business owners since the beginning of the pandemic last year. The plaintiffs have alleged violations of the American Disabilities Act (ADA).
In July, it came to light that the defendants had targeted the business owners of nearly 100 restaurants and stores in San Francisco’s Chinatown alone, and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced a criminal investigation into the matter. The ADA was put into place by former U.S. president George W. Bush to ensure those with disabilities have equal access to public amenities and receive equal treatment when applying for jobs.
“We have received reports of frivolous lawsuits intentionally targeting small businesses in Chinatown – often owned by monolingual immigrants – that attempt to undermine the ADA by using it to extort settlements rather than vindicating disability rights,” Boudin announced. “We will not tolerate exploitation of the Chinese community or any business owners. We know that Chinese merchants are no more likely to violate the ADA than any other business owner and we take these allegations very seriously. We encourage anyone who believes they have been fraudulently targeted to reach out to our office as we launch our investigation.”
Mark Rogers, who owns Lola’s Chicken Shack in Alameda, was one of their targets. He said he’s received multiple letters from law firms offering to represent him. It wasn’t until he had received more than one that he reached out to figure out exactly what was going on and was told the ramp leading into the business is not level. Rogers said he examined the ramp and found is complied with ADA regulations. He has since learned that approximately 60y Alameda businesses have received similar notices.
Alameda City Manager Eric Levitt said the city attorney’s office was not investigating the case because it is considered a private matter. However, he stated, “We are concerned. We want all businesses to be ADA compliant. But we also hope both sides can work together to resolve any issues.”
Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft added, “We are certainly concerned with access. But we are also concerned that these lawsuits seem to be targeting small businesses, which are already having a hard time due to the pandemic, and the significant financial consequences for them.” Ashcraft said she “would like to see a mediator work with both sides” and said business should get six months to addresses any issues.
A Sacramento County attorney and quadriplegic, Scott Johnson, has filed more than 6,250 ADA lawsuits since 2003. Prosecutors indicted Johnson in 2019 for allegedly “failing to report his income from the lawsuits” and the case is still pending.
“Things are hard for all types of businesses right now,” said Kelly Zhang, 22, of Alameda, who was shocked to hear what was happening in the area. “Many restaurants are barely getting by due to COVID. Stuff like this can make things worse for them.”
Rogers, who has no plans to settle, has obtained an attorney for a $5000 retainer fee.
“I assume I will end up having to eat that,” he said. “But you also have to look at what’s cost-effective. I am still doing that. You don’t know what’s going to happen until you get there.”