SACRAMENTO, Calif. — “I almost fell out of my chair.”
That's the response Johnnie Walker had after learning the judge's verdict.
“It was 6 months of a nightmare for me – because I gathered all this information myself in order to keep my legal costs down,” Walker added.
Those legal costs were the result of one letter. That letter was from Scott Johnson, an Americans with Disabilities Act litigator from Carmichael, Calif.
Johnson's letters have appeared on doorsteps throughout the state, from restaurants to dentist offices to gas stations. The notice states that the business must become compliant with various changes to disabled signage and parking as required by ADA. It gives notice to alter the property and/or to settle with Johnson monetarily.
For businesses unaware of the guidelines, it can be a shock. Some risk shutting down due to the cost of paying thousands of dollars in fees or construction for the proper wheelchair slopes, redesigning of the interior of a location and parking expansions.
For Walker, it meant he was getting sued. He manages the property at 6500 Watt Ave., but wasn't the one to receive the letter. It was his tenant, operators of a massage therapy office.
“I'd never seen the guy before in my life,” Walker said. “Neither had the people leasing my property. In court he had no receipts, no proof he came to the business. First I thought it was a joke or something. But it turns out this guy wanted a lot of money.”
He found out what Johnson was doing was neither a joke nor illegal.
“The county gave me a permit seven years ago telling me I was ADA compliant,” Walker said. “That's all I knew. I had parking for the disabled. I would have been happy to change the color of my stripe or make the necessary changes.”
What Walker didn't know was that in 2008 ADA laws had changed. Johnson's letter stipulated that the property “lacked a van accessible parking space, properly configured parking spaces, and accessible entrance” among other signage and striping requirements.
That's when Walker started his research. He called around to other businesses and found some had received the same letter — verbatim. One associate told him, “I know a guy who can settle with Johnson for three thousand dollars.” Walker contacted his attorney.
He searched the Internet for literature and called businesses that made payouts to Johnson to the tune of $3,500 to $10,000. Some who couldn't afford it were sending checks monthly to Johnson for $200.
Walker searched transcripts, county records, and the ADA website. He sent it to his attorney who then called Johnson. Johnson asked for $8,000 dollars.
“My lawyer said this guy is giving good lawyers a bad name,” Walker said.
That's when they decided to counter sue. The cause: Rule 11 or “a frivolous lawsuit.” Johnson tried to settle out of court for $6,000.
According to official court documents, Johnson has filed more than 400 federal cases of this kind against businesses. Year after year, Johnson has filed an increasing number of ADA claims; in 2004 he filed 40. In 2005 he filed 99. In 2007, the number came to 131. Last year it was 318.
“Who goes to nine different dentists or 75 different auto repair shops in one year?” Walker asked.
The letter Walker received was found to be “not specific,” according to the judge in the case. According to court transcripts, Johnson failed to “comply with the basic rules of evidence.”
Johnson said he sends these letters to businesses he goes to that cannot accommodate his own disabilities, according to the transcripts. He is a quadriplegic.
Walker won. His countersuit made news when Sacramento TV station KCRA 3 aired the story. Johnson was required to pay Walker back his $5,100 in court costs, and people going through a similar situation called Walker for advice.
“They've been calling every day, all day long,” Walker said. “From Marysville to Stockton and Tahoe to Sacramento.”
Walker wants people to have his case number and he's willing to share his experience as advice.
“Do your research; get in there and educate yourself,” Walker said. “There is a serious problem, because I never had a clue about any laws changing in the ADA requirements.”
Walker also tells others not to be discouraged if anyone asks for a site inspection. Though the ruling was final, the judge went along with Johnson's request to inspect the property. He specified things like barrier modifications and signage. In the end, Johnson told Walker's lawyer to have his property inspected when he does finish with ADA improvements.
“I have no regrets — I would challenge him (Johnson),” Walker said. “He's not the person in charge of what the ADA is supposed to be. What he is doing is unethical. There are several hundred businesses paying him monthly. Who else is a victim?”
Monday, March 21, 2011
From North Sacramento News:
Posted by BA Haller at 1:27 AM