Legislation that would shield businesses from predatory lawsuits stalled Tuesday in an Assembly committee concerned with protecting rights of disabled people.
Assembly Bill 913 represents Adam Gray’s “latest, best effort” to curb abuse of disability access laws, he said, because previous reform measures have done little either to help protect businesses or reduce barriers to the disabled.
“We need to find a solution to narrowly target those behind these predatory lawsuits,” said Gray, D-Merced. “To look the other way and pretend this is going to get fixed” isn’t working, he said.
A recent report of the California Commission on Disability Access found that 14 people brought 46 percent of all disability-access lawsuits in California in 2014. Gray’s bill would allow judges to deem those filing 15 or more in the previous 12 months as “extremely high-frequency litigants.”
AB 913 “targets a very narrow group of individuals (hoping) not to improve accessibility but to leverage quick monetary settlements,” said Jennifer Barrera, senior policy advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce. Such lawsuits are tantamount to extortion, she said; the Civil Justice Association of California’s Faith Conley called them “shake downs.”
A majority of Assembly Judiciary Committee members, however, said AB 913 isn’t the answer and it died on a 3-4 vote. Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, questioned whether it’s constitutional to limit the rights of a vulnerable population.
“I don’t believe it will reduce the number of lawsuits filed,” said Anthony Goldsmith of Californians for Disability Rights. “It doesn’t create a benefit, to my mind, for anyone.”
Committee Chairman Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay, said he’s uncomfortable addressing those suing rather than their lawyers.
Connie Arnold, an advocate from Elk Grove using a wheelchair, said businesses have had decades to fix problems. Rather than do so, most simply wait to be sued, she said.
Gray said that’s because corrections can bear an “enormous cost.”
His bill might have brought more scrutiny to people like Robert McCarthy, an Arizona man previously convicted of child pornography and stealing his dead brother’s identity, who has filed hundreds of lawsuits including more than a dozen in Modesto, and 91 throughout the state in the past year. Cynthia Hopson of Lodi has sued 43 Modesto-area businesses in recent years, and has sued 30 times throughout California in the past year, a Modesto Bee report found.
Gray cited newspaper accounts Tuesday, and said the effort to fight lawsuit abuse won’t end with the stalled bill. He noted that former Congressman Tony Coelho – from Gray’s district – led the charge for the Americans with Disabilities Act when it passed in 1990, and Gray said he would oppose any attempt to overturn its mission.
“The fact is,” he said, “no one is celebrating these professional ADA victims and their attorneys as crusaders expanding access rights for the disabled.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390