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Small Businesses Targeted By ADA Lawsuits

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Small businesses beware: You are at risk of getting sued over disabled access.

His name is Scott Johnson, a disabled man notorious for suing businesses for violations of the Americans with Disablities Act.

We found more than 2,000 cases filed by Johnson in federal court, going back to 2004, targeting people like Dominic Speno, owner of this Best Western hotel in Patterson.

"He might as well have just brought a gun with him and said stick em up because essentially that is what this is about, this is a stickup!," said Speno.

RELATED: State Legislator Battles 'Serial Filers' Who Exploit Disability Act Infractions


Real estate developer Mel Vail's been sued repeatedly over the years.

"Seven properties. And sued more than once on a couple," said Vail.

They're often referred to as "drive-by" lawsuits: Drive by, find violations, drive off, then sue and collect damages. Johnson, we're learning, has turned his operation into a business, complete with full-time staff.

"He gave them maps every day of where to drive and where to go," said attorney Catherine Corfee, who represents 4 former employees who sued Johnson for sexual harassment.

"He told them how many complaints they had to file in a work week," she said.

She says the employees had to fill out forms, circling all the violations they could find at each business and checking off details like: "stayed", "receipt" and "reason."

"He gave them bonuses for how many lawsuits they prepared and if they misspelled the name of a business in the lawsuit they would lose their bonus," she said.

Johnson's company -- Disabled Access Prevents Injury -- is registered as a private corporation, so there's no way to know how much he's making. But ADA consultant Kim Blackseth guesses that over the years it's added up to millions.

"We have in effect an Easter egg hunt," said Blackseth.

Because aside from forcing the business to fix violations and recovering attorney fees, plaintiffs in California also collect damages of $4,000 dollars per visit.

"There is some incentive for someone disabled to i.d. these issues," said Blackseth.

And it turns out finding ADA violations is like shooting fish in a barrel. On a tour of his neighborhood Blackseth spotted dozens.

"There's virtually nowhere that I know that I can't find a technical violation," he said.

Technical violations could be a sign that's a few inches too small or a ramp that's just a degree too steep.

"All of these are real regulations, but are they really a barrier? Are they really stopping you from going to 7-11 and getting a beef stick? Sometimes, but as a general rule not," said Blackseth.

"It does bother me in the sense that being in a wheelchair and I go into a restaurant it's automatically assumed you know, what's he here for, is he going to sue, you can feel it in the hair at the back of your neck. I don't need it," said Blackseth.

But he says the only way the drive-by trend will stop is to eliminate statutory damages, a drastic action that he predicts Sacramento will never take.

"In my experience the legislature has been deeply frightened of the disabled community and the backlash," said Blackseth.

So for now its business as usual.

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