Calif. lawmakers pass ADA lawsuit abuse measure

Jessica M. Karmasek Sep. 4, 2012, 12:00pm


SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - A bill aimed at helping California businesses comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, without facing the ever-growing threat of frivolous lawsuits, has cleared the state Legislature.

Late Friday, the Senate voted 34-3 to concur in Assembly amendments on Senate Bill 1186.

SB 1186 now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk. He has until the end of the month to sign it into law.

The bill, authored by Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, hopes to curb predatory ADA lawsuits, in particular against small businesses in the state.

Nearly 40 percent of ADA lawsuits in the nation are filed in California.

Specifically, the measure bans "demand for money" letters. In these letters, lawyers often order businesses to pay a set amount, plus their exorbitant legal fees, in exchange for dropping the case.

In addition, SB 1186 requires attorneys to send a notice letter, listing any alleged construction-related violations, at least 30 days before filing a lawsuit.

It also prevents "stacking" of multiple claims to increase monetary damages, requiring a plaintiff to explain the need for multiple visits to the same business with a known uncorrected barrier to access.

The bill also significantly reduces damages against business owners who correct alleged violations within 30 to 60 days of receiving a complaint.

Also, the measure requires landlords to disclose whether their buildings or properties are state certified and in compliance with ADA laws.

The bill -- which will take effect immediately after getting Brown's signature -- hopefully will resolve conflicts between state and federal standards, which some believe is adding to the number of lawsuits filed.

"Championing civil rights for the disabled is what first motivated me to get into public service. The Unruh Civil Rights Act is one of the great laws of this diverse state, and including ADA violations within the protections of the Unruh Act was the right thing to do in 1992," Steinberg said in a statement over the weekend.

"At the same time, it's just plain wrong that some attorneys abuse the law by filing paper against businesses all over the state, making multiple claims for the same violation to pressure a quick settlement, and demanding money with the threat of a lawsuit over minor violations of disabled access laws."

SB 1186, he said, is a compromise that applies a "common sense approach" to resolve difficult issues.

"In the end, this will give some relief to entrepreneurs who show good faith in trying to follow the law and are willing to correct the violation," Steinberg said. "Ultimately this measure promotes compliance and brings greater access to the disabled community."

Steinberg said the legislation makes it a priority for the state's Commission on Disability Access to develop and disseminate educational materials and information to promote and facilitate compliance with the law.

It also provides for more certified access specialists in local building departments to ensure new construction and improvement projects are not approved unless they comply with disability access requirements.

He said there also are provisions designed to avoid confusion and unnecessary litigation with the upcoming publication and adoption of the 2013 California Building Standards Code. Once the code is published, it doesn't become effective for 180 days.

The bill provides that upon the publication date of the new 2013 code yet before its effective date, the property owner may choose to comply with the 2013 Building Code provisions regarding construction-related accessibility standards in any Unruh damages claim, Steinberg explained.

The Civil Justice Association of California, an industry-sponsored group that advocates for legal reform, said it was fairly happy with the end result.

"While the bill does not go as far as we would have preferred, it is certainly encouraging to see the Legislature pass substantive reform on this very complicated issue and we are hopeful that this bill will provide some relief from abusive disabled access lawsuits," President Kim Stone said in a statement Saturday.

"The authors of the bill, Senator Darrell Steinberg and Senator Bob Dutton, deserve a great deal of credit for seeing this all the way through and making a serious attempt at reform. Senator Dianne Feinstein is also to be commended for her recognition of the problem and for pushing the Legislature to act this year.

"The bill should be signed into law and we look forward to seeing how it works in practice."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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