Many San Francisco businesses have been targeted by individuals seeking quick payouts for alleged violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, prompting D4 Supervisor Katy Tang to visit several Irving Street merchants Wednesday to advise them of their rights.
Under the ADA, federal law requires businesses to make improvements so that people with disabilities can access their facilities; businesses that fail do so may face civil lawsuits. Tang said several Chinatown merchants recently received letters from disabled people who threatened to sue, but offered to settle for a smaller sum.
"California has a particular law that makes it really lucrative for a lot of lawyers who want to go around and do drive-bys," said Tang, who added that some attorneys "literally pair up with people who are in wheelchairs, drive by and look at your entrance to see if it's accessible."
Under legislation Tang sponsored, businesses that hire a Certified Access Specialist (CASp) to inspect their premises may receive extra time to come into compliance. The CASp report lays out the steps required to make the property accessible, and includes a recommended timeline for removing barriers to primary entryways.
The building's owner must prepare a compliance checklist; if changes are required, they'll also need to apply for the necessary building permits. To facilitate the process, Tang's legislation also created a Disability Access Compliance Unit inside the Department of Building Inspection.
If a disabled person brings suit against a merchant who obtained a CASp report, the business owner can ask the court to delay the suit for 90 days. "It's the most comprehensive ADA law in the country," said Tang.
According to the City's Office of Small Business, the average cost of an ADA settlement is $30,000, including legal fees, but the average cost of removing an access barrier is $4,000. Because many merchants don't know the law, some reflexively pay settlements, while others may end up facing expensive court cases that could put them out of business.
During Wednesday's merchant walk, Tang and Outer Sunset Merchants Professional Association President Bill Barnickel encouraged several businesses to set up CASp inspections and shared information about tax incentives and loan programs that can help pay for improvements. One program offers loans ranging from $1,000 to $50,000 to help small businesses comply.
Tang said a building's owner and commercial tenants are jointly responsible for making ADA upgrades, but they must work together to decide how much each party contributes. "ADA is not designed to put your business out of business," she said.
Business that aren't ADA-compliant are still required to offer service to disabled customers; if a restaurant offers take-out service to someone who can't be seated inside, "that works," said Tang.
Tang and Barnickel said several businesses, including Silver Spur and PPQ Beef Noodle House, had already paid large sums of money to settle access claims. Placards taped to the front doors of PPQ Beef Noodle and Noori Pakistani and Indian Cuisine indicate that the restaurants have received a CASp inspection.
"Our job is to tell people what steps they should be taking so they have the right information," said Tang. "We don't want people to just settle," because money that's spent to make lawsuits disappear "don't solve ADA challenges." Tang said the amount of a settlement request varies widely, and can run anywhere from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars.
Barnickel said "at least three" businesses in the Outer Sunset have shut down in the last few years after sinking tens of thousands into upgrades or lawsuits. "Some just think it's not worth it," he said. "You end up working for free, or working just to pay the landlord."
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