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Thursday, Dec 8, 2022
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Lot of Liability

Small business owners know all too well about the costs of being ambushed by lawsuits over non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Now the Valley Economic Alliance wants to help prevent the egregious abuses of the federal law with a most unlikely partner – Goodwill Southern California. Together, they are promoting the All-Access ADA Support team to get out ahead of any costly and time-consuming lawsuits. Michael Hadley, economic development coordinator for the alliance in Sherman Oaks, said becoming involved with Goodwill on the program fits the group’s mission of supporting business and making sure they stay in the San Fernando Valley. “We want them to grow and thrive and not have to deal with lawsuit abuse here in the Valley,” Hadley said. For its part, Goodwill gets access to a larger market for the business services that it offers. Also, the program can create jobs for the constituents the nonprofit serves, including veterans, former prisoners re-entering the workforce and the disabled and vocationally challenged. David LoPresti, senior business development executive for Goodwill Southern California, said that prior to creating the ADA support team, Goodwill had gone through the parking lots of its own 83 retail stores in the region and made sure all were compliant. “We had already passed the beta test by knowing that we are capable of it and checking off the boxes of who we could help,” LoPresti said. Maryann Marino, a regional director with California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said the issue of lawsuit abuse against business owners over non-compliance with ADA is only becoming worse. This year, the group was joined by more than 250 business owners in a trip to Sacramento to meet with lawmakers whereas a few years ago there were only a dozen, she said. “You can deal with taxes. You can deal with regulations. But a $10,000 settlement because you don’t have the right parking lot sign, which is about $50, can wipe you out,” Marino said. The new program is still in the early stages of implementation having launched at the end of May. LoPresti had no numbers on how many businesses Goodwill had assisted but had proposals out that he was waiting to hear back on. One proposal was for supplying signage and wheel stops – those concrete blocks that keep vehicles from going on sidewalks or medians – for a five-story, 500-space parking lot at a shopping mall in the Valley. The cost for the project would be in the range of $3,500. “If you are dealing with a small business that has a lot with fewer spaces for a similar type of job, you would be looking at a few hundred dollars,” he added. Signs and stripes The ADA is the 1990 law aimed at making buildings easier for the disabled to access. It has myriad regulations stipulating such details as the colors on signs, the height of railings and the width of lanes for handicapped parking. The ADA is a favorite tool of some unscrupulous lawyers who, for example, may file suit against a business alleging that a handicapped parking stripe is half an inch off. Businesses often figure it’s cheaper to pay the plaintiff several thousand dollars to withdraw the suit rather that litigate the matter. When it comes to complying with ADA, LoPresti said that in most cases there is a simple solution – better signage and correct striping of the parking lots so that handicapped persons in a van have enough room to get in and out of their vehicle. “The signs and stripes are usually the key infractions and the key area that you can recommend to get fixed,” he said. “But sometimes it can get bigger as well.” Some fixes beyond the signs and stripes have to do with ramps leading to the business or the layout of the parking lot itself. In the case of a simple fix, Goodwill can handle the work but for the bigger jobs the nonprofit has partners such as pavers, architects and certified access specialists that businesses are referred to. “We will be able to provide them with the information to get that done,” LoPresti said. One motivation for Goodwill and the Alliance to ensure compliance with ADA is to control legal costs when a business is found to have violated the law. David Warren Peters, an attorney in Irvine who defends businesses in ADA lawsuits and has spoken at events for the Valley Economic Alliance on the topic of lawsuit abuse, said that while California has about 12 percent of the nation’s disabled population the state generates 40 percent of ADA lawsuits. The main reason for that, Peters said, is that California is the only state that places a minimum on the damage amount that can be collected if a violation is proven – $4,000 per infraction plus attorney fees. At that amount, small businesses can get clobbered if sued multiple times as more than half the lawsuits have to do with parking. According to the California Commission on Disability Access, in the first six months of this year, four of the top five violations compiled by the commission had to do with parking. “It is more profitable than narcotics – people can go around and make $50,000 in an afternoon day after day filing these claims,” Peters said. Marino, of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said that the disability access commission was created to bring reform to lawsuit abuses. One of the first priorities of the commission was to come up with a list of things businesses could do to be in compliance with ADA, she said. “To this day that list has not been created,” Marino added. “Businesses are still under attack.” LoPresti at Goodwill noted that modern technology makes it easier to file claims. A plaintiff can use Google Earth to look at parking lots and see if their striping is in order. If not, they can file a claim without ever visiting the location, he said. “We have predatory lawyers moving in state to set up shop because it is a lucrative way of making some money,” LoPresti added. Peters is familiar with the Goodwill program and has met LoPresti but he stopped short of giving a full endorsement since he did not know all the details of how it worked. Still, he said he’s impressed by what he’s seen because it’s the type of program that has been needed for a long time. Other private organizations have not been so successful at making compliance easier. “My hope is an organization like Goodwill is going to do that and get it together to have the procedures in place to make sure the right thing happens at property after property,” Peters said. CEO awareness Part of LoPresti’s job is getting the word out about Goodwill’s business services, which include document imaging and shredding, e-waste collection and landscaping and custodial work. Communicating with business owners led him to the alliance on ADA compliance. At an event sponsored by the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, LoPresti met John Popoch, deputy chief of staff for Los Angeles City Councilman Bob Blumenfield. Popoch recommended that LoPresti meet with Kenn Phillips, chief executive of the Valley Economic Alliance. From the outset of speaking with Phillips, it was obvious to LoPresti that the two organizations would work well together and the ADA compliance issue suited both. “It grew quickly from there,” LoPresti said. “In our first meeting we rolled up our sleeves and started talking and have been fast-tracking from there.” The alliance’s role is in referring businesses to Goodwill to receive a free assessment on how their parking lots match up to what is required under ADA. The companies also receive a review package of what needs to be addressed. If a business that comes directly to Goodwill needs any assistance beyond ADA compliance, the Alliance can be their point of reference, Hadley at the alliance said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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