SAN RAMON — In November, Sameer Misson found out his family’s Valero gas station had been sued for violating disability access laws.
Surprised, the 29-year-old East Bay resident quickly made the relatively minor fixes to the handicap parking striping and signage, plus changes to the door pressure, counter height and bathroom sink to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It cost him about $300, and he paid an access specialist to certify that his San Ramon Valley Boulevard service station was up to code.
Misson thought the problem was resolved, so he was shocked when he received a demand for a $25,000 settlement, which would only get higher if he didn’t pay it immediately. That’s when Misson first learned about Scott Johnson, owner of Disabled Access Prevents Injury Inc. Johnson has filed thousands of ADA lawsuits across Northern California for what experts say is millions of dollars in settlements and attorney fees.
“I don’t like getting ripped off at all, whether it’s $1 or a thousand dollars … and that’s exactly what’s happening here,” Misson said. “A lot of people say just make a deal and make it go away. I think it’s a legal form of extortion.”
Johnson, a Carmichael attorney who is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair, has moved his focus from the greater Sacramento area to the East Bay and South Bay. Since October, he has sued 39 businesses in various cities and towns, including San Ramon, San Jose, Campbell, Pacheco and Pleasant Hill.
But Johnson is perhaps getting a taste of his own medicine. He has been named a defendant in a lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court by four former employees, and recent court filings have pulled back the curtain on his operation for the first time, alleging quotas, bonuses for high settlements and lawsuits filed against businesses that Johnson never visited.
“He’s the worst of the worst. It’s a total shakedown,” said Sacramento attorney Michael Welch, who has represented hundreds of clients sued by Johnson. “These cases are all about attorney fees, not about ADA.”
However, the law is largely in Johnson’s favor. Each violation, even if it involves a sign affixed to a door an inch too high or low, can carry a $4,000 civil penalty, but more importantly, the loser must pay the other party’s legal fees. And the longer the case drags through court, the bigger the bill, so many businesses choose to settle. Five of the Bay Area businesses sued since October have already paid confidential settlements.
For years, Welch has fought Johnson in Sacramento federal court. The lawsuits are all nearly identical in their wording. Welch said he focuses on mom-and-pop shops, and particularly vulnerable businesses.
“A disproportionate number of businesses sued by Scott Johnson are … owned by immigrants and minorities,” Welch said. “The protection racket plays well with immigrant businessmen unfamiliar with the American legal system.”
Johnson appears to have worn out his welcome in that region. In Sacramento federal court, judges began holding off processing Johnson’s lawsuits, Welch said, requiring parties to meet and confer while disabled access corrections were being made so attorney fees would not accrue. Welch dubbed it the Johnson Rule.
“(Judges) know it’s a holdup job. But what can they do?” Welch said. “They have to uphold the law.”
The state Legislature has been attempting to tighten the law in recent years with mixed success. Last year, a bill was proposed that would have separated the minor violations from the ones that truly block disability access. The legislation would have encouraged businesses to get an accessibility inspection, including a tax credit for the cost of the inspection, and if issues were flagged, they would have been provided a 120-day window to make corrections. However, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, saying the tax credit would be too costly.
Johnson has since traveled west to take advantage of the federal court in San Francisco, where the judges are not yet familiar with his serial litigation, said Welch, who already has a handful of East Bay clients. Johnson has also switched tactics — he’s now just the plaintiff on behalf of Southern California law firm Potter Handy.
Neither Johnson nor his attorney, Mark Potter, answered calls and emails requesting comment.
In 2012, four former employees of Johnson’s company sued him claiming unfair working conditions. Although the women’s attorney, Catherine Corfee, declined to comment because of the ongoing case, in declarations filed last month, the women described an ADA lawsuit mill where Johnson would send them out with a map, measuring tape and intake form to find new businesses to sue.
The women said they had to meet a quota of filing between 11 and 16 ADA complaints per pay period to earn a $200 bonus. They received a $100 bonus if a case settled for more than $7,000.
On certain days, the women had to drive with Johnson in his van canvassing areas in search of violators. The women called them “Stuck with Scott Johnson Days.”
Refuses to settle
Late last year, Johnson hit businesses on South Bascom Avenue between San Jose and Campbell. He sued Com Tam Thanh, a family-owned Vietnamese restaurant at 905 South Bascom Ave. who decided to settle last month for an undisclosed amount. Just down the street at 870 South Bascom, Chung Wu owns a Subway restaurant. Johnson sued Wu and the building’s landlords on March 27, but on Monday that was news to Wu when reached by a reporter.
“I think the law should give small businesses a chance to fix it and give us warning … before we go to the legal process,” Wu said.
As for Misson, he refuses to settle and wants to get the lawsuit thrown out. Even though Misson made the first round of fixes, Johnson has sent an amended complaint with even more violations, many seemingly minor technical ones.
On a recent Friday, Misson showed a reporter around his gas station just off the Crow Canyon exit of Interstate 680. In the bathroom, he pointed to the shield he was forced to add to the bottom of the sink to prevent a burn to the legs of a customer in a wheelchair.
“We don’t even get hot water in here,” he said, shaking his head.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
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