SACRAMENTO – When Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 269 into law, it was a big step toward making sure California businesses are making their facilities accessible to the disabled; however, to some this is only a beginning.
"While we are thrilled that this bill has become law, it will not single handedly solve the problem of ADA lawsuits in California," Kim Stone, president of the Civil Justice Association of California (CJAC), told the Northern California Record.
Senate Bill 269 aims to reduce the amount of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits and protect businesses from what are deemed to be minor violations that do cause actual harm; namely interior signage, exterior no-parking signs, order of parking signs, color of parking signs, color of parking lot striping, faded paint and truncated domes on ramps. The bill protects businesses from automatically having to pay $4,000 plus attorney fees for minor violations, and gives them 120 days to make repairs and have them inspected by a certified specialist.
Stone points out that California has become a hotbed for ADA lawsuits, and that certain firms and plaintiffs are specializing in them. A 2015 report from the California Commission on Disability Access pointed out that there were nearly 3,000 lawsuits that alleged nearly 10,000 violations; however, 40 percent of the cases were handled by one of two firms, with the number only expanding to six firms at 70 percent of the cases.
"The plaintiffs appear to be professionalized too – 69 percent of plaintiffs are plaintiffs in 10 or more lawsuits," Stone said.
The primary issue with the way things were, according to the CJAC, is that while those bringing ADA lawsuits were compensated for the violations, that sometimes did not lead to change.
"Many of these ADA access lawsuits in California are by lawyers who prioritize settlement dollars over access to the disabled," Stone said. "Many of the settlements are for money only and do not even require that the business become compliant as a condition of settlement!"
But under SB 269, businesses now get a chance to correct the violations pointed out to them before any sort of fine is levied. This gives businesses in California an incentive to become compliant, instead of simply settling the case and paying the fine, while not being required or having incentive to correct the violations. While this is a positive step, the CJAC believes that this needs to be expanded beyond minor technical violations.
"In order to truly fix the problem of abusive ADA lawsuits in California we need to change the law for all violations to allow notice and opportunity to cure," Stone said. "In other words, the plaintiff would have to tell the defendant what the problem was and give them a chance to fix it before filing a lawsuit."
So in the end, while the CJAC sees this as a good step forward, they say California businesses must still be careful.
"For business owners in California, the only way to protect themselves against an ADA lawsuit is to make their business fully compliant," Stone said. "We recommend hiring a Certified Access Specialist and making the necessary improvements to become compliant."