The last few years have seen some serious changes in the law that will change how many lawsuits will be filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While that initially may sound unnerving, these changes are designed to deter frivolous suits and, more importantly, make the system more efficient for those with valid claims.
What Are the Changes?
Senate Bill 1186 puts forth a new process that lawyers must follow before initiating a lawsuit against a business or landlord for not being ADA compliant. Here are a few highlights:
- Initial demand letters for ADA compliance may no longer make requests for money.
- Demand letters must now include the lawyer’s state bar number, and be sent to both the California state bar and the Commission on Disability Access, who will track the complaints.
- For damages, plaintiffs used to be able to “stack” claims, meaning each time a person with a disability visited a non-compliant area, it would constitute a new offense. The new law offers “mitigation of damages” as a defense. Courts are now allowed to look at the reasonableness of the plaintiff’s visit and see if the plaintiff had no choice but to return to the non-compliant site.
- The new law also provides encouragement to building owners to take preventative measures. Under the new law, a business owner or landlord who obtains an inspection and then corrects any violations is entitled to claim special protection against a claim or complaint alleging a disability access violation. More importantly for the business owner or landlord, the statutory damages are reduced from $4,000 to $1,000 per violation.
Do These Changes Hurt the Individuals with Disabilities Filing the Suit?
This new law does not limit all damages incurred by the disabled person—including damages for injuries caused by the failure to provide access. The limitation also does not apply to intentional violations; if a business owner gets an inspection and willfully does nothing, they will be just as liable as before.
These changes were made in response to a “very small number of plaintiff’s attorneys” abusing the law by “issuing a demand for money to a California business owner that demands the owner pay a quick settlement of the attorney’s alleged claim.”
The legislature noted that this “pay me now or pay me more” approach was being “used to scare businesses into paying quick settlements that only financially enrich the attorney and claimant,” without taking any measures to assist “the disability community as a whole.”
At the core of this new law is an effort to stop excessive litigation and stop those who were abusing the laws and system as they were. That effort should make meritorious claims more likely to be heard more quickly, as frivolous or exaggerated claims will be more difficult to pursue.