BY RICHARD K. De ATLEY | The Press-Enterprise
Steps to assure a business has disabled access to either avoid or dampen the impact of a costly lawsuit were discussed by experts Friday at a gathering in downtown Riverside.
The Americans with Disabilities Act compliance seminar at the County Board of Supervisors meeting room was organized by state Sen. Richard Roth and the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce after scores of handicap access lawsuits were filed against Riverside small businesses, including restaurants, cafes, apartment buildings and motels during the past two years.
Kimberly Stone, president of the Civil Justice Association of California and Ida Clair, a senior architect with the certified access specialist program (CASp) division of the state architect’s office, both advised businesses to get a CASp inspection.
Clair said about 600 certified CASp inspectors are available in California to investigate access and compliance at businesses. They are privately hired, and costs are variable with such factors as the size of business.
Certified CASp inspectors can be found at the state Department of General Services website.
Getting a CASp inspection may not prevent an ADA lawsuit, but it can provide a business owner with certain legal benefits, Clair explained.
A business with a CASp inspection can get a 90-day stay of legal proceedings, an early evaluation conference to discuss the merits of the case in front of a judge, and an offer of reduced statutory damages, if the case proceeds to trial.
“Part of the compliance is education,” Roth told the gathering of about 150. “One of the things we have not done as well as we could in California is educate businesses on the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 and has been enforceable since 1992. California has its own disability access rules, some of which were in place by 1968.
Unlike the federal ADA, state law allows for civil damages, and defendants may have to pay attorney fees as well.
But the ADA was created in 1990 without a bureaucracy, or government enforcement. “They had enforcement instead by the private sector, by individual lawsuits, ” Stone said.
In addition, every violation of the ADA is also a violation of the state civil rights Unruh Act. “That’s why you get attorneys’ fees and a $4,000 fine. And that’s why our settlement amounts in these lawsuits tend to be so high.”
Stone said bills over the past decade have been introduced and failed in the California Legislature to change how ADA violations are dealt with. Her organization supports a notice to businesses that gives them a chance to fix violations before a lawsuit is filed, she said.
“If you haven’t gotten sued yet, you probably will, so go ahead and make your changes before it comes,” Stone said. “Being sued, hiring your own lawyer, going to the end and winning your lawsuit is not really a victory,” because of the costs, Stone said.
Stone urged those who use a CASp inspector to hire them through an attorney, and have the attorney keep the report.
Riverside City Councilman Mike Soubirous said after the meeting he was developing a proposal to have the city’s building and safety inspectors issue a “fix-it ticket” for ADA violations found in the course of their regular inspection. He also would like to see reminders about ADA requirements included in the city’s business tax bills.
“This is revenue that doesn’t stay in the city,” he said of money spent on ADA lawsuits filed against local businesses.