September 30, 2015

Long Beach small business owners bemoan plethora of lawsuits

By Andrew Edwards / Press-Telegram

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell heard more than a few complaints Wednesday from Long Beach area business owners who are concerned that existing laws leave their companies too vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits.

Business owners and others who attended the gathering spoke of having to pay thousands to settle lawsuits filed under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires that disabled persons have equal access to public spaces. Others claim the businesses are in violation of Proposition 65, a 1986 California measure mandating consumers be informed when products contain chemicals causing cancer or reproductive problems.

California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse convened the meeting. The group believes the 1990 ADA and Proposition 65, despite their authors’ intentions, have become vehicles for some attorneys to file “shakedown” lawsuits against small business owners, accusing them of technical violations.

O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, told business owners there has been recent some movement in Sacramento toward laws that may be more favorable to business owners.

“What you’re starting to do is starting to see some Democrats see the light on the issue,” O’Donnell said to his audience, who met at The Boathouse by the Bay Restaurant near Alamitos Bay.

The Assemblyman referred to two bills — both authored by members of the Legislature’s Democratic majority — that may provide some comfort to small business owners. Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to sign either bill.

One bill, A.B. 1521, was authored by the Assembly Judiciary Committee of which O’Donnell is a member. The bill would require business owners and commercial tenants who are served with notices that they aren’t providing equal access for disabled persons are also informed of their rights and responsibilities under the law.

The bill would also create $1,000 filing fees and other disclosure requirements for high-frequency litigants. The official analysis of the bill shows that fewer than 1 percent of all California small businesses were sued over accessibility issues in 2014, based on data available from the California Commission on Disability Access. The analysis, however, also reported a mere two law firms filed 54 percent of all such complaints filed between September 2012 and October 2014.

The second bill is S.B. 251 from Riverside Democrat Richard Roth. That bill would reduce the liability of business owners who hire inspectors to check for compliance with disability access requirements.

Disability Rights California, an advocacy group, supports Assembly Judiciary Committee’s bill but opposes Roth’s measure. The group contents the latter legislation would not do enough to verify inspections and could lead to access problems going unfixed for too long.

Maryann Marino, the Southern California regional director for California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said the group wants legislation that would go further.

Under California law, a violation of the federal ADA is also a violation of the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which carries a $4,000 penalty. Marino said her group wants laws that would give business owners a chance to repair any problems that hinder disabled persons’ access without guaranteeing the kind of payout for lawyers.

“Any time we could get the right to cure and take away the financial incentive, then the problem would go away,” she said.


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