STOCKTON, Calif. – The legislative battle against some predatory lawsuits – a nearly impossible task at the state level – is jumping from California to Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney said this week.

“A fairly small number of individuals and firms are causing this havoc in our businesses,” McNerney, D-Calif., said while announcing federal legislation aimed at significant reform. “A handful of bad actors have taken advantage of the law just to make money.”

He referred to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that businesses make life easier for customers with disabilities. Critics say it’s being used in concert with California law to extort payouts from bewildered companies without helping those with disabilities much.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Special reports by The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star in 2014 found that more than 60 businesses had been slapped with ADA lawsuits in Stanislaus and Merced counties. Barnwood Restaurant & Catering in Ripon and Ming’s Restaurant in Los Banos closed rather than fight in court or buckle to settlement demands for tens of thousands of dollars.

Some drive-by plaintiffs “have no intention of entering and enjoying a business,” said McNerney, whose 9th Congressional District includes parts of San Joaquin, Contra Costa and Sacramento counties.

“We had to move,” said Steve Grant, owner of Chuck’s Hamburgers, after 56 years in what had become an outdated Stockton building. Its hallways and bathrooms were too small under ADA regulations, and Grant’s landlord was unwilling to make changes, he said.

Last year, California lawmakers Kristin Olsen, Cathleen Galgiani and Adam Gray all introduced ADA reform bills in Sacramento with controversial “right to cure” provisions giving businesses time to fix violations. Facing stiff opposition, Gray and Galgiani withdrew theirs; the legislature eventually passed a version of Olsen’s after it was watered down, but Gov. Jerry Brown objected to its $250 tax credit for businesses making improvements and vetoed it.

Olsen rebounded this year with Assembly Bill 54, co-authored by Gray, which would require reporting of certain information in a standard format to the California Commission on Disability Access. Both also signed on to Senate Bill 269, which would give businesses with less than 50 employees 120 days to make minor repairs under narrowly tailed conditions that would not apply in most cases. Both bills continue to move through the legislature in Sacramento.

McNerney’s U.S. House of Representatives Bill 4719 aims higher, allowing companies 90 days to correct deficiencies and another 30 days if owners are making “good faith” efforts such as obtaining construction permits or hiring contractors. The legislation also contains a “public shaming” requirement that shops post notices visible to customers while in the process of correcting problems encountered by people with disabilities.

The congressman calls it his COMPLI Act, or Correcting Obstructions to Mediate, Prevent and Limit Inaccessibility. It would define anyone bringing 10 or more lawsuits in a year as a high-frequency litigant, with restrictions on filing more.

Some plaintiffs in Stanislaus County and Merced cases were behind numerous lawsuits, The Bee and Sun-Star found. They include Robert McCarthy, an Arizona man who has sued hundreds of California businesses over 14 years, except when incarcerated on child pornography and fraud convictions.

McCarthy and others have sued in federal court as well as at the county level.

Olsen issued a release commending McNerney and saying it’s “crucial that leaders at both the state and federal level continue to work together” on such reform.

Fresno attorney Rachelle Golden called McNerney’s effort “an amazing step in the right direction.” Injured in a 1999 snowboarding accident, she uses a wheelchair but sympathizes with – and defends in court – companies slapped with ADA lawsuits.

Although conceived as an “important and beautiful thought,” Golden said, “the ADA is severely abused and has become a money-making scheme for a small handful of attorneys and serial plaintiffs.”

© 2016 The Modesto Bee
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC