As part of an ongoing effort to sustain the viability of small businesses in the Central Valley, Congressman Jeff Denham on Monday introduced a bill to combat frivolous lawsuits that accuse local businesses of violating portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
H.R. 1493, the ADA Lawsuit Clarification Act, aims to hinder the abuse of ADA legislation that occurs through frequent lawsuits filed by individuals across the state in an attempt to make money off of predominantly small business owners.
“Many small businesses are under attack, especially here in the Valley. It’s a disgrace that the owners and operators of these local businesses are falling victim to predatory lawsuits, often leaving them with little opportunity to address or correct the issue,” said Denham. “I hope to alleviate the concern that business owners have when faced with these frivolous lawsuits. This change in law will assure that they can increase access to the disabled instead of closing up shop because they’re threatened with costly litigation and legal fees.”
The ADA Lawsuit Clarification Act gives business owners and operators 120 days to respond to and correct an ADA violation complaint before being held civilly or criminally responsible under federal and state law. Also under the Act, the Department of Justice is required to make compliance materials available in languages commonly used by business owners and operators.
ADA standards in California include a minimum fine of $4,000 for each ADA violation, the requirement that business owners provide proof and additional violations on top of those at the federal level. More than 40 percent of the nation’s ADA lawsuits are filed in California.
Currently, there is no federal “grace period” in place, however, there is one in California thanks to the passage of SB269 in 2016, which was advocated by the bipartisan San Joaquin Valley Caucus.
Similar to the ADA Lawsuit Clarification Act, SB 269 gives small businesses with fewer than 50 employees the time they need to address access violations. Those who have hired a Certified Access Specialist have 120 days to make specified minor repairs to their establishments. Also, businesses that have been made aware of lawsuits filed against them have 15 days to address specified violations. The legislation also requires state agencies and local government building departments to send regular updates of changing ADA laws.
After a string of ADA lawsuits hit San Joaquin business owners with hefty fines and even caused some businesses to shut down in 2015, local organizations and legislators reached out to the business community to provide education. Through programs like the Stanislaus Business Alliance’s ADA Basics for Business, businesses learned about the history of ADA cases in the Central Valley, as well as examples of various suits and claims that have targeted mainly small to medium sized businesses.
According to the California Commission on Disability Access, between the months of July to December 2016, the top 10 demand letters and claims being issued to businesses included noncompliant parking lot issues, such as fading blue paint on parking spaces and incorrect signage, problems with accessible routes and entries into businesses and inaccessible counters, sinks and light switches in bathrooms.
Denham has been advocating for ADA lawsuit reform for a number of years.
“In the last year, the Central Valley has seen a sharp rise in the number of predatory, drive-by lawsuits accusing local small businesses of violating portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Denham in 2015. “Sadly, many of these cases are blatant attempts to extort the owners and operators rather than truly ensure compliance. They often target minority and immigrant owned businesses ill-equipped to fight off lawsuits."
Rep. Denham’s introduction of the ADA Lawsuit Clarification Act comes on the heels of the House Committee on the Judiciary’s “Legal Reform Week” in the House of Representatives. Denham signed on as a co-sponsor of Rep. Ted Poe’s (R-Texas) bill, the ADA Education and Reform Act, which gives business owners and operators the opportunity to correct any non-ADA compliant structural barriers before lawsuits may proceed, establishes standards for notification to business owners of alleged violations and encourages better compliance through DOJ and stakeholder collaboration. Additionally, last week Denham helped support the passage of a set of bills to fight lawsuit abuse, including H.R. 720, the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act; H.R. 725, the Innocent Party Protection Act; and H.R. 985, the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act.