Calif. bill targets lawsuits against property owners

Jessica M. Karmasek Jun. 9, 2011, 10:30am

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - Legislation introduced in California's Senate this week may provide some relief for residents from abusive disabled access lawsuits.

Senate Bill 783, as introduced Monday by Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, would require a potential plaintiff to notify a property owner of an alleged violation. The owner then would have 30 days to respond with a plan to fix the problem or with a rebuttal to the allegations.

If the owner decides to fix the problem, he or she would have 120 days to do so. If the improvements were not made within 120 days, the plaintiff could then file suit.

The bill's introduction comes following a proposal in Congress this year by California Congressman Duncan D. Hunter that would provide a 90-day window to make necessary ADA improvements.

The Civil Justice Association of California, or CJAC, said in a statement this week that it is "strongly supporting" the measure.

"Access for the disabled is the law, and is righteous and necessary," CJAC President Kim Stone said Wednesday. "Unfortunately, some lawyers are profiting through exploitative lawsuits that do not improve access.

"Giving property owners 120 days to make the improvements is a reasonable approach that will accomplish the goal of disabled access without putting an undue strain on small businesses that are sometimes facing a choice between reaching a settlement or shutting down."

California law goes above and beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Under California's Unruh Act, individuals may recover $4,000 per violation, plus attorney fees.

Stone said that creates a situation that can be exploited by lawyers looking for technical violations because there is a high incentive for property owners to settle rather than go through costly litigation.

Legislation enacted in the state in 2008, SB 1608, put in place several reforms to help businesses meet their obligations and avoid litigation. However, there continue to be serial filers across the state, Stone said.

"They know that they can take advantage of our law for financial gain because so many business owners will just settle to make the case go away," she said. "The problem is there is no enforcement to make sure the improvements needed actually occur. That has led to a trend of 'drive-by' ADA lawsuits where lawyers gets their settlement money and just move on to the next target. This is not the way to improve disabled access."

SB 783 would take effect immediately upon being signed into law. It is now before the full Senate for consideration.

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