Palo Alto business owners are mobilizing against a law firm that has exploited the ADA to win thousands of lawsuits and millions of cash from businesses around the state.
The Bay Area tiny Business Coalition has found an honest and cheap counsel to defend their 50 businesses against Potter Handy, and he has achieved tiny triumphs.
The organization is also pushing a legislative measure to make ADA lawsuits tougher to file.
“With the pandemic, with everything the restaurants were going through, I think everybody was like, ‘This is just too much,’” said Stephanie Wansek, owner of Maxine Bistro at 548 Ramona St.
In an interview Monday, Wansek and Tai Pan owner Tony Han claimed they began talking in 2021 when Scott Johnson, a wheelchair-bound attorney represented by Potter Handy, sued them. Potter Handy’s lawsuits repeat. Johnson or another plaintiff alleges they visited a company that was inaccessible for many reasons. Restaurants are sued most.
Around the same time, mailings from opposing legal firms offer to save the business money.
In summer 2021, Johnson sued hundreds of University Avenue businesses for outdoor eating tables that were too small for his knees and toes.
Potter Handy has sued companies on El Camino Real, Castro Street in Mountain View, and Laurel Street in San Carlos.
Johnson was sentenced to 30 months of home jail for tax evasion in April and barred from suing corporations. Potter Handy continues.
Han and Wansek decided to fight back, both financially and morally, because most lawsuits are resolved for $10,000.
Our main message was that people are not alone. The spirit of camaraderie was strong throughout. Han said people need to share the struggle.
During a Senate Bill 585 hearing, companies had 120 days to rectify ADA breaches before being sued. Han, who went to Sacramento to promote SB585, said small business owners called the hearing to support it, and it was forwarded to the Assembly on a 29-7 vote.
Wansek called it remarkable.
Wansek said similar measures have failed because politicians saw them as targeting disabled people, but this bill solely targets repeat litigants.
Han and Wansek monitored a website that revealed where lawsuits were filed and knocked on doors to build the business coalition.
Han said most members live between Los Gatos and San Mateo, with a dozen from Palo Alto.
Phillip Tillman, who costs $2,500 per business, represented the group in litigation.
Tillman wants 10 companies to share costs.
“You need numbers,” Wansek remarked.
Potter Handy accepted $5,000.
Wansek claimed Potter Handy offered $5,000 in a settlement meeting.
All but one firm answered no, and a federal judge rejected the claims, allowing Potter Handy to suit in state court.
Han claimed Potter Handy has re-sued 10 coalition firms and is being read for more.
Wansek hopes Johnson speaks under oath so Tillman can ask him if he meant to go to the company.
“We all know the answers,” Wansek remarked.
She stated the court must see something is amiss.
The 1990 ADA building code mandates 5% of seats to be accessible to individuals with impairments. Private individuals enforce the code, and in California, a few specialist legal firms represent a small segment of the handicapped population.