A Sacramento-area lawyer is challenging some Lodi businesses to comply with disability laws or face potentially expensive lawsuits.
Attorney Scott Johnson, who is disabled himself, is a controversial figure who has filed more than 1,000 disability-related lawsuits. He is regarded by some as an aggressive advocate — and by others as an opportunist.
He recently sent a letter to Lodi business owner Paul Taormina telling him his lock and key operation was not in compliance with the Americans with Disability Act.
The catch is that Johnson's letter doesn't state what these violations are. However, Johnson enclosed several pages about the ADA and how to comply.
Johnson also gave Taormina an option to comply within 60 days.
Taormina plans to comply rather than face a lawsuit.
Paul's Safe/Lock & Key rarely has a customer in a wheelchair, Taormina said. There have been times where a disabled person would honk from the parking lot for attention. Taormina said he'd come outside, make his new keys and bring them back out to the customer's car. No problem, he said.
At the old Save Mart store on Hutchins Street, Johnson filed suit, claiming that the store didn't have marked handicapped parking. Johnson said he sent a letter warning the store of ADA violations, but Ray Ghuane, whose father owns the store, says they never received any such letter.
Not only did Save Mart install the proper handicapped parking and signs, but the Ghuane family also settled the lawsuit by agreeing to pay Johnson $7,000.
"If they respond to the notice letter and fix the property, they don't owe me a thing," Johnson said.
It's only if they don't comply and Johnson sues them that he seeks a settlement, he said. If the business or property owner contests the suit in court, the judge will award Johnson closer to $16,000, he said.
"That's why people settle," Johnson said. "I settle for less than the maximum amount."
Downtown Lodi attorney Michael Fluetsch, who has represented several clients who were sued or served a warning letter from Johnson, said that Johnson seems to be in it for the money.
"In every case we've had, we've paid him some money," Fluetsch said. "It ranges from a few hundred bucks to a few thousand bucks."
Fluetsch says that some ADA violations are significant, but Johnson often nitpicks, alleging violations for measurements being just a few inches off the legal requirements.
Johnson said that he advises business people to use his accompanying materials about ADA requirements only as a guide. It would be much better to hire a state-certified ADA specialist to thoroughly inspect the premises and report on what work needs to e done to become compliant, Johnson said.
"I've filed no lawsuits certified by the California Access Specialist Program," Johnson said. "I'm not going to argue with a California certified expert."
Since 2004, Johnson has filed more than 1,000 lawsuits in Sacramento federal court, slightly tweaking the documents to fit the target: A restaurant's service counter is too high, or an apartment complex doesn't have enough disabled parking. During a recent week, Johnson filed more than two dozen lawsuits, mostly aimed at apartment complexes.
"I have a very personal interest in ensuring access," Johnson said. "I'm disabled."
Taormina said, "I realize he's in a wheelchair, but he needs to be stopped."
Johnson said he doesn't track the number of letters he's sent to Lodi businesses.
"He's just been suing everybody," Fluetsch said. "I know of about a dozen clients in town and others in Stockton. I guess he's good for the business of all the lawyers."
Nevertheless, Fluetsch suggests that people who own businesses or any building that's open comply with the ADA, because it's cheaper than fighting a lawsuit.
"If you get sued, you are sued in federal court," Fluetsch said. "You spend thousands and thousands of dollars in legal fees defending it."
While some question whether Johnson personally inspects businesses to see if they comply with ADA regulations, Johnson says he does.
"My biggest problem with Scott Johnson is that he rarely ever goes into the businesses he sues," Sacramento attorney Robert Lorbeer said. "Generally, all he does is drive by. Someone using Google earth in North Dakota could file the same lawsuits."
Despite being a quadriplegic, Johnson says he is able to drive with a wheelchair lift. Johnson added that he even sky dives from the Parachute Center in Acampo.
"The approach I've taken with (Johnson) is very aggressive," said Fluetsch, the Lodi attorney. "We make him prove when he visited the business; did he bring it to the owner's attention?
"He doesn't want to litigate against an aggressive attorney," Fluetsch said. "He wants to pick off the easy prey."
Fluetsch said that Johnson sued a Lodi nail salon for an alleged ADA violation, yet the entire shopping center was sued as well. Fluetsch declined to name his client.
Johnson says he sometimes notifies the individual business, but sometimes he notifies only the property owner. If it involves a shopping center and he sends a letter to the property owner, he assumes that the property owner would notify the tenants, Johnson said.
Fluetsch and Johnson said that rules differ for buildings constructed before the ADA was approved by Congress in 1990.
"I've never put any small business out of business," Johnson said.
But once Johnson sends a warning letter, the business owner must get together with the property owner, who Johnson says is equally responsible, and figure out who will pay to comply.
"If you can't afford it, you don't have to do it," Johnson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.