When it comes to ADA access, California is arguably one of the best states in the nation. One reason for this is that California allows plaintiffs the right to compensatory damages of $4,000 per access violation, plus attorney’s fees, under the Unruh Civil Rights Act. Most states only allow litigants to collect attorney’s fees and injunctive relief, meaning that defendants must fix the ADA violations. However, a handful of California lawyers and their plaintiffs seem to be using the UCRA for the sole sake of cranking out hundreds of ADA access “drive-by” lawsuits, raking in millions of dollars in the process. But the true costs of these lawsuits may be an increase in ill will toward people with disabilities, plus fanning of the flames of legislation that weakens ADA accessibility laws.
In order to sue under the ADA, the plaintiff must have a disability that has been affected by the violation and must have visited or attempted to visit the business being sued. When a person abuses the law by driving around purposefully looking for obvious violations such as no accessible parking in order to file lawsuits, the media refers to their actions as “predatory,” frequent flier” or “drive-by.” Armed with a list of businesses and violations, the person blankets an area with lawsuits and/or demand-letters to settle for anywhere from $4,000-$12,000 or more. Follow-up to check on corrected access is rare.
“One problem with drive-by demand letters is, I’ve heard that some larger businesses just set aside a ‘slush fund’ of pay-off money,” says Margaret Johnson, advocacy director for Disability Rights California. “It is cheaper to pay people off than fix access issues.” The media story becomes “ADA drive-by” when it should be focusing on failure to address violations of a law that has been on the books since 1990.
Another tactic employed by predatory p