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ADA lawsuits were in the news again this week, due to a letter that Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote to state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) calling on state legislators to act to reform the ADA litigation process.  As reported by the Los Angeles Times, [1] Senator Feinstein decried the filing of “abusive lawsuits” and “coercive demand letters” sent to small businesses, often to multiple businesses by a single attorney, for minor ADA violations.  The businesses are often forced to enter into settlements in order to avoid the costs of litigation.  According to the Times, Senator Feinstein cited the case of Redlands, California where “22 businesses were sued by the same attorney for allegedly failing to post a sign next to the handicapped parking spaces that informed parking violators they would be towed.  The business owners settled the cases in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $14,000.”  Senator Feinstein decried the fact that the “shakedown tactics used by these lawyers may place a financial strain on businesses and counterproductively leave them unable to afford to make required access improvements.”
Frustration over perceived overzealous ADA litigation is nothing new.  Residents of Sacramento will almost certainly remember the uproar over the 2009 closing of beloved  local landmark, the Squeeze Inn, following an ADA lawsuit.[2]  The subject is certainly a difficult one, weighing the interests of business owners and disabled citizens against one another.  However, although both Sens. Feinstein and Steinberg are promising action and the Squeeze Inn is be doing better than ever with five locations taking the place of the shuttered Fruitridge Road one[3], our advice to business owners is to take proactive steps to become ADA compliant.  Becoming ADA compliant will offer you protection against lawsuits, abusive or otherwise, but will also help you fulfill the ultimate goal of every business owner, providing the best possible service and experience for your customers.
A good place to start for a business owner looking to become ADA compliant is the federal government’s Small Business Primer[4].  The Primer, which contains sections on General Nondiscrimination Requirements, Making the Built Environment Accessible, and Steps for Success can give business owners a good overview of their res under ADA.  Of particular importance are the 2010 standards, compliance with which became mandatory on March 15, 2012.  It is important for even formerly compliant business owners to be familiar with the new standards and ensure their continued compliance.
California business owners who desire more peace of mind regarding their ADA compliance can work with a Certified Access Specialist (CASp).  Established by the legislature in 2003 via Senate Bill 262, the CASp program certifies individuals who have met certain requirements established by the State Architect.  These individuals are then empowered to inspect sites and certify them as compliant.[5] In the event of an ADA lawsuit, the business owner can then apply for a stay of the case using the CASp compliance certification.  This will trigger an early evaluation conference which could lead to a quick and easy resolution of the lawsuit.[6]  A list of CASp’s can be found at the State Architect’s website.[7]
Coming into ADA compliance can often be extremely costly and involve extensive and burdensome repairs and construction.  For this reason, we recommend beginning the journey to compliance as soon as possible.  By familiarizing themselves with ADA compliance standards or working with a CASp, business owners can develop a compliance plan which can spread the burden of coming into compliance over months or even years.  The easiest, cheapest, and most vital repairs can be made immediately, with larger projects put off to a more convenient time.
No matter the actions of the state and federal government, it is sure that ADA compliance issues are going to continue to be a concern for business owners in the future.  For that reason, the savvy business owner will take the initiative, educate themselves, and take steps to voluntarily ensure their compliance.
More resources regarding ADA compliance can be found at the state’s Disability Access website.[8]