A slew of small businesses on the North Shore have recently been targeted by a disabled attorney, claiming they are not in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Scott Johnson, who is known around the state and locally for filing these types of lawsuits, has sued at least 45 businesses from Kings Beach to Tahoma since November.

Johnson, who was hit by a drunk driver in 1981 that left him a quadriplegic, sends letters to businesses stating they are noncompliant with the federal law that requires a minimum level of access in all public places. His most recent accusations against local businesses have been that handicapped spaces are not properly marked, the ramps to the businesses are too steep, and/or the door handles are not push/pull handles, among other complaints. He is asking anywhere from $22,000 to $25,000 per lawsuit.

“Although parking is provided to patrons, there is not a single functioning and compliant handicap parking space,” reads the lawsuit against Tahoe Mountain Sports in Kings Beach, filed Jan. 28 in a public document. “Whether through neglect, apathy or otherwise, the defendants have permitted the handicap parking spaces and signage to either deteriorate to the point of being non-functioning or to be maintained incorrectly. The wheelchair logo has faded to oblivion. The handicap parking stall does not have a marked and reserved access aisle adjacent to the stall for use by persons with disabilities.”

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Dave Polivy, owner of Tahoe Mountain Sports,said his landlord has since repainted the faded striping, but is frustrated that neither Johnson nor his attorneys contacted him before filing the lawsuit.

“It puts undue stress and aggravation during an already difficult season,” said Polivy, who is hoping to settle.

Johnson is no stranger to the Tahoe/Truckee area, having filed numerous lawsuits against small businesses locally a few years ago, even putting Donner Lake Kitchen in Truckee out of business in 2011. He has filed more than 2,000 federal lawsuits in the California Eastern District Court in Sacramento since 2004.

In 2012, four former employees of Johnson’s law firm sued him for sexual harassment. Johnson was the sole attorney in his Carmichael, Calif. practice, where he only filed ADA cases on his behalf. The lawsuit also alleged the employees were required to visit businesses to see if they were ADA-compliant, and that he did not enter the businesses himself. Johnson’s filings dropped off in the wake of the lawsuit, yet now seem to be back in full force. And while he used to file on his own behalf, he now has the Center for Disability Access, a law firm based in San Diego, file for him. Calls to Johnson’s attorneys by Moonshine Ink were not returned.

Jim Porter, a Truckee attorney representing more than a dozen of the businesses currently being sued, said the federal and state ADA laws are “complicated” and that many times business owners don’t even know they are noncompliant. The only way to know for sure is to hire a Certified Access Specialist, who will write a report of all the violations. But then it is up to the business to make the corrections; otherwise they are liable to be sued by someone like Johnson. Porter also represented Truckee and North Shore businesses against Johnson two to three years ago.

“I don’t like his style. I wish the law required a prior notice of ADA violations before he could sue. My message is to make the necessary exterior ADA upgrades tomorrow, because if you are sued it gets much more expensive,” Porter said. “Make your ADA upgrades now and avoid paying later.”

Johnson told the Associated Press in 2011 that he tries to enter the businesses at least twice himself before filing a claim, and that his goal is to get each business to comply with the law. Regardless of his strategy, businesses still feel the impact of the lawsuits.

Steve Marks, co-owner of Spindleshanks in Tahoe Vista, was recently sued by Johnson for $22,000. Johnson alleged that Spindleshanks, which is slated to close March 30 and be torn down, has only one handicap rail, the sink in the men’s restroom is not accessible, the knob on the door is round, and the ramp is too steep.

“Even if you have a fight, it’s just too expensive to do it. Everyone just settles,” said Marks, who plans to settle. “We are California compliant, but federal laws are different.”

Sandy Evans-Hall, executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, suggests targeted businesses hire an attorney familiar with the ADA law. She said once businesses are sued there is not much they can do but settle and make sure their building is compliant. She urges businesses to make sure their facilities are ADA-compliant.

“If you haven’t made any reasonable efforts to bring your property up to ADA compliance, then you could be in trouble,” Evans-Hall said. “If you are a small business, you have to make sure to make every reasonable effort to work towards compliance.”

Read the column inspired by this article here.

Author

  • Kara Fox

    When she’s not writing or editing the news section for Moonshine Ink, Kara Fox can be seen hiking in the spring, paddle boarding in the summer, mushroom hunting in the fall, snowshoeing in the winter, and hanging out with her 7-year-old son year-round.

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