BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
A quadriplegic attorney notorious for filing lawsuits that accuse small businesses not complying with the American with Disabilities Act has targeted a Mountain View boutique hotel, according to court documents.
Carmichael attorney Scott Johnson filed the suit Jan. 9 against Hotel Avante, 860 E. El Camino Real, alleging that the three-star hotel doesn’t have adequate handicapped parking spaces.
Johnson also claims that while the hotel has wheelchair-accessible rooms, they aren’t distributed among the different classes of available accommodations and there aren’t wheelchair-accessible rooms with two beds, violating the ADA.
The violations, if found to be true, are sure to cost the hotel thousands of dollars, according to Michael Welch, a Sacramento lawyer who says he’s fought about 400 of Johnson’s lawsuits over the last 10 years.
Johnson has targeted businesses in Sacramento but has recently focused his efforts on the Bay Area, where the federal court district has higher attorney fees.
“It’s not really a disability case. It’s a lawyer’s fees case,” Welch told the Post. “It’s a scam. Attorney’s fees scam.”
Johnson is represented by the Center for Disability Access, a San Diego group that routinely files lawsuits on his behalf.
How it works
The group’s lawsuits, including the one against Hotel Avante, seek damages under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, including actual damages and a statutory minimum of $4,000 for each time the plaintiff visited the business and observed the violation.
According to Welch, Johnson drives around, visiting businesses and documenting violations. If he visits a restaurant or hotel nine times, then files a lawsuit, the business can be forced to pay him more than $36,000.
But Welch said the much more burdensome cost is the attorney’s fees that the defendants have to pay, which can range from $10,000 to much more.
A business’ best option is usually to settle as quickly as possible to avoid racking up attorney fees, Welch said.
“It’s a holdup job. It’s extortion,” Welch said.
Johnson didn’t respond to phone messages or emails from the Post.
Businesses can be unexpectedly hit with lawsuits over any number of easily fixed violations, such as faded paint in the parking lot, or if a bathroom sink doesn’t have a shield underneath to prevent a wheelchair-bound customer’s legs from burning.
Welch said he regularly testifies at the state Legislature in support of laws that would prevent predatory ADA lawsuits. AB 150, introduced last year by Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, would require a litigant to first write the business a letter informing the owners of the violation. If the violation isn’t remedied within six months, the litigant can sue.
Welch represents small businesses who Johnson sues, charging a $5,000 flat fee regardless of how long the case takes, he said.
“I get real (upset) about it. I’ve done half a dozen of these cases for nothing,” Welch said. “I want to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.”