Pioneering disabilities rights attorney explains the ideas behind the Americans with Disabilities Act
Sacramento-area attorney Scott N. Johnson, who has sued thousands of small businesses in Northern California alleging violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, was indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury on charges that he filed fraudulent tax returns on funds he received from the lawsuits.
Johnson, a quadriplegic whose lawsuits have garnered settlements, forced ADA improvements at various storefronts and driven some firms out of business, was charged with three counts of making and subscribing a false tax return, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott’s office said.
The indictment alleges that Johnson understated his income from 2012 through 2014 from settlements of lawsuits filed under the ADA, the visionary act signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.
Johnson faces up to three years in prison and a $100,000 fine for each count and is scheduled to make appear in court on the charges Wednesday.
“We will respond to the IRS in court, but believe they got Scott’s taxes wrong,” Johnson’s attorney, Malcolm Segal, said. “In the meantime, it is important to recognize that in his settlements with business owners they were required to correct deficiencies which prevented disabled people from safely using their businesses.
“While some businesses didn’t want to voluntarily spend money to provide that safe access, thanks to Scott Johnson and other advocates like him, Sacramentans with disabilities are now able to shop, buy gas and eat where they want without having the injure themselves to do so.”
The indictment alleges that Johnson and his firm, Disabled Access Prevents Injury Inc., paid little in taxes in 2012 and 2014 and no taxes at all in 2013, despite reporting gross receipts for DAPI of $310,000 in 2012, $47,500 in 2013 and $75,315 in 2014.
Johnson, a McGeorge School of Law graduate who was admitted to the California Bar in 1993, is one of a number of attorneys who travel the region filing lawsuits against small businesses and claiming they are in violation of the ADA.
Federal court documents in the Eastern District of California, based in Sacramento, show he is a plaintiff in more than 2,900 lawsuits, and he has become well known over the years as one of the major ADA filers in California, where experts say a majority of ADA lawsuits are filed.
A plaintiff named Scott Johnson also is listed in another 914 lawsuits in the Northern District of California, based in San Francisco.
Johnson was a focus of a three-part investigative series in The Sacramento Bee in 2006, “The Price of Access,” that described how lawyers use the ADA suits to force compliance with the law but also to earn thousands of dollars from small business owners who quickly agree to settle the suits rather than fight them out in court.
The series described Johnson, based in Carmichael, of cruising the streets in a full-size van accompanied by his service dog Rocky and suing restaurants, a pet store he frequented and other small businesses.
At the time, a Bee analysis found that he routinely settled suits for between $4,000 and $6,000.
Advocates of such lawsuits say they are a necessary force to provide access to disabled citizens who frequently find businesses are inaccessible to them and do not want to spend the money to come into compliance with the 29-year-old law.
But some business owners and others have compared the suits to extortion attempts to generate quick payoffs to settle the suits, and the one review of Johnson on Yelp depicts the vitriol aimed at such filers.
“This guy is why people think of lawyers as scum bags,” the reviewer wrote. “He sues small businesses for minor violations of ADA laws and squeezes them to make big bucks for himself. Pure slime.”
Johnson has declined to talk to The Bee in past years. Asked for comment for the 2006 investigation, he offered an email statement in which he wrote that he was “afraid some statements may be taken out of context.”
“The lawsuits which I have filed are public record and speak for themselves,” he added. “I would like to assure you though, that not all businesses participate in discrimination after access violations are brought to their attention.”
Last year, one of Johnson’s lawsuits was against Jointed Cue Billiards, a 50-year-old Sacramento pool hall, that closed its doors after being sued by Johnson.
Johnson appears to have slowed his pace of lawsuits in the Sacramento region in recent months, with only one filed in federal court in the area so far this year.
He appears to be more active in the Northern District this year, where a Scott Johnson is listed as a plaintiff in 94 cases filed in 2019, including one filed Thursday against the owners of a San Jose food and liquor mart that Johnson’s suit says he visited in December and January.
The suit alleges that the market has a lowered ADA-compliant counter, but that “the defendants have a practice of converting a significant portion of the lowered sales counter to a display area where merchandise for sale and a computer is offered, displayed and stored.”
In past years, Johnson filed most of his suits himself, earning a reputation as an “efficient” litigant who did not need to ask for attorney’s fees. But recent cases list him as a plaintiff using the Center For Disability Access, a San Diego law firm, as his attorneys.
Federal court files in the Southern District of California, based in San Diego, do not list Johnson as a plaintiff in any cases.