TORRANCE (CBSLA.com) — Small business owners say lawsuits filed against them claiming they're violating disability regulations are actually money-making endeavors by greedy attorneys.
Roanne Mitchell says these types of suits are threatening to close the two bars she owns in Torrance.
She says she's been handed five lawsuits in the last two years saying she's not up to code with the American Disabilities Act because of her bathrooms.
Mitchell doesn't dispute the claim.
"It has to be five feet in radius all the way around. I'm going to lose space in the bar - that's fine," she said.
One of her bars sits in a building built in the '50s, way before businesses had to comply with a disabilities code.
The bar owner says she's been saving for the $30,000 remodel.
"I'm not ADA-compliant. I want to be so bad, but as long as they keep hitting me with lawsuits, the account I've put aside to become so, they've drained those funds," Mitchell said.
Mitchell settled the first suits for $7,000 but she soon found herself facing three more.
"It's scary...but when I got my third, fourth and fifth, I thought this isn't feeling right to me," she said.
The bar owner says she got the feeling the suits weren't about making it right – it was about making money. She reached out to attorney Marc Wasserman for help.
"It's definite extortion and blood money, the way I see it," Wasserman said.
The lawyer says these lawsuits appear to all be connected to a small group of San Diego County attorneys who use the same group of plaintiffs and target small mom-and-pop-type business across aging shopping centers.
"State law allows disabled individuals to sue and receive a minimum of $4,000," Wasserman said. "When you have cases like this and fight back, they don't respond. All they want is that quick buck and when they see you're not going to give it, they tend to just ignore the case."
Furthermore, Wasserman believes the plaintiffs have never been in Mitchell's bars. He says one of them, Hemet resident Edward Gutierrez, failed to show for a February deposition. The plaintiff's attorney presented a death certificate, dating from December 2013, that reads "informational, not a valid document to establish identity." The plaintiff in the case against Mitchell's other bar, "Hi N Dry Cocktails," is listed as Willie Fontano, also of Hemet, who told CBS2/KCAL9 by phone to speak to his attorney, Michael Taibi, who did not return phone calls.
David Warren Peters is with California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) and he calls the problem pervasive and widespread.
"We have made it more profitable than narcotics," Peters said.
According to CALA, California accounts for 12 percent of the national population but more than 40 percent of ADA cases are filed here.
"We are the only jurisdiction on the plane who has this arbitrary financial damage of $4,000 or more," Peters said.
He says it's a waste of time and money for a state that already has an unfriendly business reputation.
"We provide jobs and want to continue providing jobs, but it's become very, very hard," said Joe Ramirez, who runs Pacific National Security in Culver City.
"I didn't feel like they got where we're coming from," Peters said of lawmakers. He's considering moving his business out of California.
Small business owners, along with Peters, say the legal landscape in California has led to what they say is a business opportunity for attorneys to abuse the law for their own gain, which undermines worthy ADA cases.
"There are a group of attorneys sharing a core group of plaintiffs. What they have in common is the same expert," Peters said.
Mitchell's attorneys say they've received little cooperation from the plaintiffs' attorneys, leaving her on a legal merry-go-round. She's spending any extra money she has on legal fees rather than the bathroom she says she wants to fix.
"I want to have something to give to my family when I move on and, if this keeps up, I can't," Mitchell said.
There are two bills currently in the State Legislature but CALA claims they seek essentially the same reform as bills that have never made it out of committee. The California Supreme Court recently concluded the State Legislature has been informed of the problem but has failed to take sufficient action, essentially saying it's not their place to "super-legislate."
for more features.