Sept. 21--A Senate bill penned to protect California businesses from "predatory legal action" while improving access for members of the disabled community was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 1186 brings reform to the state's Americans with Disabilities Act laws by prohibiting "demand for money" letters, in which attorneys target businesses with potential access violations and demand a quick monetary settlement in lieu of a more expensive lawsuit or fixing the problem to improve access.
"It looks like these ADA attorneys may have a hard time doing what they have done in the past. Maybe the other five businesses and myself can breathe a little easier," said Mike Moller of Moller's Realty in Corning.
He was one of six businesses and individuals to receive such a predatory letter on July 19.
The businesses that received the letters from attorney James C. Mason of San Diego were Moller's firm, Corning Auto Center, REMAX American Dream Realty, Video Tyme, owner of the Dollar Tree business complex, local Farmer's Insurance business owner Jack Safford and his landlord Jack Oliveira.
Mason, 54, who was representing Duane Sceper in the ADA claims against the Corning businesses, killed himself July 27, according to the San Diego County Medical Examiners Office.
Sceper, an attorney who claims to be disabled, said he was going to find another attorney to represent him in the claims following Mason's death.
But with the new law in place he may not be able to move forward on those claims, which asks each recipient to pay $4,000 in damages to Sceper because the businesses were not ADA compliant.
Rick King, owner of Corning Auto Center, said the new law is definitely a step in the right direction.
"With (Mason) committing suicide, Duane Sceper would have to start over, and they can't touch me now, and I won't be sending them any money. I am spending $25,000 in improvements to become ADA compliant as it is," said King. "Now I won't ever have to deal with these people again."
Calls to Sceper were not returned.
The new law prevents lawyers from stacking multiple claims for the same violation in order to increase monetary awards. It also limits damages for bus nesses that fix unintentional violations within 30 to 60 days.
The bill, a bipartisan effort co-authored by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Inland Empire, became law immediately upon the governor's signature, as both houses of the Legislature passed the bill with overwhelming support as an urgency measure.
"The whole point of our state and federal disability access laws is to remove barriers for the disabled, giving them full and equal access to businesses like everyone else. Up until now unfortunately, it was often cheaper and quicker for business owners to settle out of court than to remove those obstacles," said Steinberg in a statement.
While the new law prohibits demand letters asking for money or offers to settle, an attorney with a claim for damages can still send a letter to a business pointing out a possible violation they may be liable for, but cannot demand a monetary amount in lieu of a lawsuit.
Any complaint must also specify the alleged barrier with the date and manner in which it denied access to a person with a disability.
The law preserves liability damages for intentional violations.
The urgency measure passed the Senate 34-3, and passed the Assembly by a unanimous vote.
(c)2012 the Corning Observer (Corning, Calif.)
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