Articles Posted in Abusive Litigation

A growing number of U.S. District Court judges in the Central District of California have taken steps to manage the growing number of Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits, particularly against hotels and retailers, and to curb ADA abuse.  Since June 2019, five Central District judges have issued over 80 Orders to Show Cause (OSC) why the Court should exercise supplemental jurisdiction over their state law claims – the claims that can make ADA litigation a lucrative endeavor for serial plaintiffs and their counsel.

How did we get here?

Federal Courts have original jurisdiction over federal ADA cases.  Under the ADA, a private litigant can only obtain injunctive relief, attorneys’ fees and litigation costs.  Damages are not recoverable under federal law.

Serial Plaintiff Who Filed Nearly 3,000 Americans with Disabilities Act (‘ADA’) Lawsuits is Indicted by a Federal Grand Jury
and Faces Possible Imprisonment and Fines for Income Tax Evasion

In an ironic twist of fate, Scott N. Johnson, Esq., a disabled Sacramento attorney, who has filed nearly 3,000 ADA lawsuits as plaintiff, starting in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, now faces possible jail time for felony income tax fraud according to a Federal Grand Jury Indictment.

On May 23, 2019, United States Attorneys filed a Grand Jury Indictment, United States of America v. Scott Norris Johnson, accusing Johnson of three counts of “Making and Subscribing a False Tax Return” by failing to declare substantial income derived from ADA settlements on his U.S. Individual Income Tax Returns and his U.S. Corporation Income Tax Returns for the tax years 2012-2014.

According to the Indictment, from no later than “on or about January 28, 2008, SCOTT NORRIS JOHNSON owned and operated Disabled Access Prevents Injury, Inc. (“DAPI”), a corporation registered in the State of California. DAPI was treated as a C corporation for tax purposes.” The Indictment alleges that Johnson was DAPI’s sole shareholder and that DAPI “provided legal services associated with lawsuits that it filed on behalf of SCOTT NORRIS JOHNSON as the plaintiff.” Continue ›

In an extraordinary case charging ADA litigation abuse, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office filed an action on behalf of the People of California seeking to permanently prevent serial ADA plaintiff James Rutherford and two law firms that regularly represent him (Manning Law and the Law Offices of Babak Hashemi, and individual members of the firms) from filing abusive lawsuits. The Complaint alleges that the defendants violated various Business & Professions Code sections designed to protect the public against “unlawful, unfair or fraudulent acts or practices” and seeks civil penalties not to exceed $2,500 for each violation and other equitable relief. Civil penalties in this case could exceed $800,000 if the allegations prove true.

The Complaint alleges that “Defendants filed 323 lawsuits based on alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act” in federal and state courts. Many of these lawsuits were filed against hotels and retailers. According to court papers, the pleadings filed by the defendants follow a pattern of near-identical “allegations, except for the identity of the named defendants and the date of the alleged harm.”

This lawsuit is eerily similar to a lawsuit filed by the Arizona Attorney General against Peter Strojnik, Sr., who filed nearly 2,000 identical ADA lawsuits against Phoenix/Scottsdale businesses. Suspended from practicing law, Mr. Strojnik surrendered his license to avoid disbarment. Another lawyer in New Mexico also surrendered her license in lieu of disbarment over ADA litigation abuse.

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On October 26, 2017, a judge dismissed 99 ADA lawsuits, ordered an in forma pauperis plaintiff  (a person without funds to pursue the cost of a lawsuit) to pay filing fees of $38,300 and authorized the defendants to file fee and sanction motions.

Surely, this plaintiff’s lawyer rues the day she answered an ad on Craigslist looking for a civil rights lawyer to file ADA litigation in her jurisdiction.

What’s going on?

A Strange Set of Circumstances

The Arizona-based organization, Litigation Management and Financial Services, Inc. (LMFS), a descendant of the notorious ADA plaintiffs’ group Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities, used Craigslist, indeed.com and other online media to find and engage disabled plaintiffs to file ADA lawsuits, and lawyers to represent them. The online advertisements resulted in hundreds of ADA lawsuits filed against businesses in New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Utah.

It is also how a disabled plaintiff and her lawyer came to file 99 ADA lawsuits in New Mexico, alleging each defendant’s business violated the ADA and related anti-discrimination laws.  According to court documents, the deal LMFS made with this plaintiff and her counsel, worked like this:

  • The plaintiff was paid $50.00 per lawsuit filed.
  • The plaintiff’s counsel received $100 per filing for serving as counsel of record for each lawsuit filed.
  • LMFS drafted all pleadings and defended any motion practice in exchange for the lion’s share of any settlements that resulted from the lawsuits.
  • LMFS also arranged for a driver to take the plaintiff to some — but apparently not all — of the businesses that were sued, for a photo-op.

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In a rare and decisive action, a Central District Court Judge dismissed an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit filed by an Arizona disabled plaintiff who has recently filed a wave of over 70 ADA lawsuits against Southern California hotels.

The plaintiff, who claims she is confined to a wheelchair, called an Orange County hotel to book a room.  She asked the hotel representative whether the hotel pool and Jacuzzi had a pool lift or other means of access for disabled persons.  The hotel employee allegedly reported that the hotel had no pool lifts.  Thereafter, allegedly, plaintiff’s “agent,” and ADA investigator, visited the hotel, verified that there were no pool lifts, and notified the plaintiff of other ADA violations.  The plaintiff claimed that she regularly frequents the area where the hotel is located and plans to do so in the future.  If there was a pool lift, plaintiff claims, she would stay at the hotel in the future.

The plaintiff, Theresa Brooke, has filed over 70 ADA lawsuits against Southern California hotels in the past 6 weeks, “every single one of which” in boilerplate fashion alleges ADA violations based on inaccessible hotel pools and spas.  In dismissing the lawsuit, the Judge noted that the “deluge [of ADA lawsuits] is ongoing, noting plaintiff, it appears, would like to stay at every Orange County hotel that presently has an inaccessible Jacuzzi.”

Amid Growing Concerns Over the Proliferation of ADA Lawsuits, Congress and the California Legislature Address Measures to Curb ADA Abuse

Since 2004, more than 20,000 ADA lawsuits have been filed in the country’s federal courts. The number of ADA filings in state courts is unavailable, but likely runs in the thousands. Nearly one half of all ADA lawsuits were filed in California with no end in sight.

From September 2013- December 2014 (the last time period the figures are available) more than 3,000 ADA lawsuits were reported to the California Commission on Disability Access (CCDA). According to the CCDA, more than one-half – 54% – of all construction-related accessibility complaints filed in California were filed by 2 law firms (one of the lawyers is fighting a State Bar suspension stemming from ADA litigation).

According to the CCDA, 46% of all complaints were filed by 14 plaintiffs seeking quick settlements rather than correction of the alleged access violations. For years, thousands of businesses, including many small minority-owned businesses, have been targeted by a growing number of repeat plaintiffs and law firms. This increasing trend has prompted state and federal action to curb ADA abuse.

For example, these findings prompted the California Legislature to enact Civil Code Section 425.55 which is intended to curb ADA abuse. Section 425.55 defines these serial plaintiffs and their attorneys as “high-frequency litigants” and requires specific procedural and substantive conditions to be met before they can file litigation.

For all who own or operate businesses serving the general public, it is important to know about state and federal efforts requiring would-be plaintiffs and their attorneys to provide a specific pre-filing notice and opportunity to cure before they can initiate litigation and how these new laws impact you. Thus far, there are no notice and cure requirements.

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Federal court condemns frivolous, serial ADA litigation which subverts the noble purpose of the ADA and the entire legal profession

On April 16, 2012, an article appeared on the front page of the New York Times about the proliferation of lawsuits brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA) against small businesses and portending a wave of cases to come. Indeed, lawyers from Florida and other states have joined forces with local attorneys to file scores of ADA lawsuits against small businesses, many of which are owned by minority entrepreneurs.

On March 28, 2013, a Federal Judge in the Eastern District of New York excoriated plaintiff Mike Costello’s attorneys for filing scores of frivolous ADA lawsuits against mom-and-pop businesses over technical or non-existent deviations from the ADA Standards only to line their own pockets. Costello v. Flatman, LLC, 11-CV-287.

Dozens of “boilerplate” ADA lawsuits

In 2011, the plaintiff, Mike Costello, filed a complaint against a Subway franchisee and his landlord under the ADA and state and city New York Human Rights laws. The same day, the plaintiff and his lawyers filed seven other identical ADA lawsuits against small businesses located within a two-block radius of the Subway store. Costello later amended his complaint to bring in another defendant who ignored the lawsuit, resulting in a default being taken. After the Court issued a $14.31 default judgment, plaintiff’s counsel filed a motion for fees and litigation costs in the amount of $15,172 supposedly incurred in prosecuting the action. [Note: This is not a typographical error. The damages were fourteen dollars and thirty one cents. The attorneys’ fees sought were more than fifteen thousand dollars.]

The Judge noted that in a boilerplate complaint, Costello alleged that he is disabled, required a wheelchair for mobility, and that he visited a Subway restaurant where he encountered various ADA barriers which prevented him from enjoying the goods and services offered at Subway. The plaintiff was represented by two law firms, one from New York the other from Florida. The Court found that together, these attorneys filed dozens of boilerplate ADA lawsuits alleging very similar barriers only to force the defendants to pay money to settle the cases. Continue ›

Since January 2005, 16,530 lawsuits alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) have been filed in federal courts across the country. More of these lawsuits were filed in California than in any other state. Some believe that California is a hotbed of ADA litigation because California law awards damages and attorneys’ fees to private plaintiffs for defendant’s ADA violations — treble damages, with minimum statutory damages of $4,000 (prior to the passing of this Senate Bill), and punitive damages. An unknown number of accessibility cases have been filed in California state courts, and countless more claims have been threatened against mostly small business owners.

Past efforts to curtail ADA litigation abuse in California have been marginally successful. Unfortunately, the latest California legislation (SB 1186) may also provide limited relief from abusive ADA litigation. Key provisions of the new law became effective January 1, 2013. California SB 1186, through comprehensive amendments to a number of California laws, including provisions of the California Civil Code (Sections 55.3 et seq.), was intended to provide protection for the owners and operators of public accommodations who are making a good faith effort to comply with the ADA.

An overview of the main provisions of the new California law and our ADA Defense Lawyer observations “from the trenches” regarding the new law follows. Continue ›

Mass-produced ADA litigation: Plaintiff and his lawyer sanctioned

The end to sue-and-settle “drive bys”?

A couple of weeks ago, a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge granted a business owner’s motion for sanctions under California Code of Civil Procedure Section 128.7 against a plaintiff who has filed many ADA cases against Southern California businesses.

A “professional plaintiff” that has filed more than 400 nearly identical lawsuits against hotels, restaurants and other businesses in California may have to find a new line of work. The U.S. Supreme has let stand a prior ruling that this serial plaintiff, and his lawyer, cannot file ADA lawsuits without first obtaining the court’s permission.

On November 17, 2008, the United States Supreme Court let stand a key Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that a “serial plaintiff” and his attorney, who had filed more than 400 lawsuits against California businesses, could not file repeated Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) lawsuits against business owners without first obtaining court permission. In all but one of the 400 cases, the businesses settled out of court, avoiding substantial defense costs and time needed to fight the litigation.

A federal judge in Los Angeles called these litigation tactics “extortion” and based on trumped up claims of injury. The United States Supreme Court refused to grant a hearing to review the appellate court’s highly extraordinary ruling in the case, Molski v. Evergreen Dynasty Corp., 08-38, which found the plaintiff and his attorney to be “vexatious” for filing over 400 virtually identical ADA lawsuits in federal court.

The ruling is important because the lower courts found that the lawsuits were filed for improper purposes, even though barriers to accessibility existed at many of the businesses. Continue ›