A San Jose lawyer has filed dozens of federal lawsuits on behalf of five clients since August claiming Valley businesses haven't done enough to accommodate handicapped patrons.
The suits, filed under the Americans With Disabilities Act, mean tens of thousands of dollars in settlement costs and fines, on top of repairs -- at a time when many businesses are struggling to survive the recession.
Advocates for the disabled say businesses have no excuse for violating the law 20 years after it was adopted by Congress. But many business owners say they think law firms that file batches of ADA suits are less concerned with disabled people than they are with making money off the law.
Among the violations cited in recent cases:
*Not enough parking spots reserved for the disabled.
*Lack of signs warning of fines for illegal parking in those spaces.
*Sharp objects in bathrooms.
*Towel or soap dispensers and mirrors too high.
*Uninsulated pipes under sinks in bathrooms.
One Clovis business shut its doors after a lawsuit was filed claiming 20 violations, and owners learned they could face $80,000 in fines.
El Gallo Mexican restaurant on Clovis Avenue, which has been in business for 42 years, never expanded or renovated and its owners were not aware of the need to make their restaurant comply with ADA regulations, said Betsy Sandoval, who owns the building.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Sandoval said. "We are getting estimates on what it will cost to do repairs. If I need to get it fixed, I need to get it fixed."
A note to customers on El Gallo's door said the restaurant was closing pending repairs and a settlement with the law firm.
Roberto Torres, manager of Yosemite Falls Cafe in Clovis, said he was disappointed when his restaurant was sued. Torres said he frequently speaks to disabled patrons to make sure their needs are being met.
"I always tell them if there is anything we can do to make it more comfortable to let me know," he said.
Instead of filing a lawsuit, Torres said, the plaintiffs could have let him know about any problems so he could fix them.
Up the street from El Gallo, Cigars, Ltd., was sued for 14 violations. One of the store's co-owners wonders whether their profits will cover costs of their lawsuit and meeting ADA regulations.
Said Kirk Johnson: "We own a small corner tobacco shop where 20 customers come in on a busy day. How do you make up the money?"
Suing for compliance
ADA compliance lawsuits have hit businesses all over California in recent years, raising concerns about whether the spirit of the law is being abused.
Between 2002 and 2004 more than 130 ADA lawsuits were filed against Fresno-area businesses, many by a Los Angeles-area law firm. Since August, Randy Moore's San Jose law firm filed another wave of suits in U.S. District Court in Fresno, claiming ADA violations. Eleven of the 45 suits have been settled so far.
A handful of plaintiffs, some local, are named in the suits. They include Ronald Dean Moore, the attorney's brother.
To settle, defendants pay fines of as much as $4,000 per violation to the plaintiff and attorney as well as their own attorney and court costs.
Business owners say they can't help but be cynical when they see a wave of lawsuits filed by an out-of-town attorney.
Jimmy Jo, owner of I Love Sushi in Clovis, which was sued for 35 violations, said he supports the law -- but believes Moore and other attorneys are bounty hunters out to make a quick buck.
"There are people making tons of money off a needed law," Jo said.
Jo said the suit against his business seizes on technicalities. One violation, for example: that a bathroom mirror was too high. The suit was filed on behalf of a woman who is legally blind.
But Moore said he simply wants businesses to recognize rights of the disabled.
Moore, who once lived in Fresno and had a law office here, said he took cases in Fresno because he has disabled relatives and friends here who have been affected by access issues in businesses.
Moore said neither he nor his clients are getting wealthy from the lawsuits; the most anyone makes is a few thousand dollars after the settlements.
"We're not putting anybody out of business," he said. "If they let us know they accept responsibility to eliminate barriers, then we reach agreement. In most cases, we will settle for the minimum" of one violation.
Moore said his clients deserve the same rights in a business as any able-bodied person.
"It's the same as civil rights and sex discrimination," he said.
Ed Kemper, an advocate for the disabled who reached an out-of-court settlement with Clovis over disabled access repairs to city buildings and streets, said businesses have had two decades to comply with accessibility laws.
Kemper, who uses a wheelchair, says he is tired of the disabled being second-class citizens.
"They finally had someone who said they are not taking it anymore," said Kemper, who lives in Folsom. "The disabled are the ones who are always blamed."
But even some activists for the disabled are skeptical about the lawsuits.
Toni Eames, a Fresno disabled advocate who is legally blind, said plaintiffs or their attorneys should make a good-faith effort to resolve a problem before suing.
"It would be great if this law firm could point out the violations, tell them what needs to be done ... instead of suing," she said.
Help on the way
The wave of lawsuits has prompted calls for action.
Assembly Member Mike Villines, R-Clovis, said he will consider an amendment to a bill similar to one proposed by former state Sen. Chuck Poochigian, R-Fresno, in 2005. That bill would have allowed a grace period for businesses hit with ADA violations to make corrections, but it was killed by the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
"In this down economy, we should do everything we can to keep business alive," Villines said.
And Clovis city officials, concerned about the effects of ADA compliance lawsuits on local businesses, are planning workshops on ADA laws. In addition, they will ask the City Council on Monday for permission to spend grant money and other funds to assist businesses with ADA issues.
"Businesses ... need to know about the law to protect themselves," said Tina Sumner, the city's economic and community development director. "Still, some businesses may hear the information and take the risk of not complying."
For businesses that have already been hit with an ADA lawsuit, Sumner said, the city wants to use certified access specialists to help them survey their businesses and determine the changes needed.
She said the city has grant money to provide up to 20 inspections by access specialists, whose jobs were created only last year by the Legislature. The city also has redevelopment funding set aside for a matching loan program that will provide businesses up to $10,000 for compliance improvements.
Statewide, there are 167 certified access specialists, of which two are in the central San Joaquin Valley region of Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties. Forty others have recently passed testing, said Jeffrey Young, a state Department of General Services spokesman.
"We would agree there aren't enough to cover a state of this size," Young said.
It costs about $1,600 to take the test and get certified to provide advice about accessibility requirements. Even so, Young said, not enough people are seeking certification.
To cover the state, there should be closer to 5,000 specialists certified, said Imad Naffa, one of the Valley region's two certified access specialists and president of Naffa International in Fresno.
He said a certified inspection "is insurance in case a business gets sued."
If that happens, "everything comes to a stop for 90 days so the two sides can agree how to fix the violations."
But people don't call for inspections until they have been caught with violations, and then it's too late, said Dan Zoldak, the Valley's other certified access specialist and vice president of Lars Andersen & Associates, a civil engineering firm in Fresno.
"The biggest group of people are doing it after they get slapped with one of these lawsuits," he said.