Bill protects businesses from disability act suits

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The state Senate passed a bipartisan bill Tuesday aimed at protecting small businesses from attorneys who demand quick settlement money under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, said they were trying to balance the civil rights of disabled people against concerns about a growing predatory legal practice.

They said small businesses are increasingly being threatened with costly lawsuits for failing to improve access for disabled people, and their bill would require lawyers to give small businesses at least 30 days of notice before suing for damages.

It would also ban so-called "demand for money" letters and instead gives hotels, restaurants and other small businesses time to make repairs.

"We know, unfortunately, that there are some plaintiffs' attorneys that threaten small businesses and say to them, 'You either pay up or we are going to sue you,'" Steinberg told lawmakers before the vote.

Lawmakers passed SB1186 on a 36-0 vote just days before the deadline to pass policy bills out of their house of origin. The measure now moves to the Assembly.

Not all lawmakers agreed that legislation was necessary. Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said it's hard to believe businesses are still unable to comply with building codes to accommodate the disabled.

"It's just not impossible to comply," Evans said. "There are lawyers who take advantage of the technicalities of existing law, but we have ways in which we can deal with those lawyers short of denying access to our disabled friends and relatives."

Dutton said the problem began to surface in his Southern California district about two years ago, when small businesses began receiving threatening lawsuits from lawyers. Many of the businesses paid to settle without making repairs to better accommodate disabled people, he said.

"Frankly we're trying to get rid of the bad actors — the frivolous lawsuits," Dutton said.

He said small businesses will be better able to make changes if they can avoid costly settlements.

"Now, instead of paying out $3,000 or $4,000 or $5,000 in settlement costs, a lot of the times these kinds of minor infractions are only a few hundred dollars" to repair, Dutton said.

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