What’s coming to your mailbox?

  • By: President and CEO of The Fresno Chamber of Commerce

You could be next!!

It was not too many days ago that the Chamber hosted a press conference discussing an increasing nuisance to those of us who own and operate businesses. And this is a pain that could be coming to your mailbox soon.

There are very few business people who wouldn’t do everything within reason to make their customer’s experience as pleasant as possible, regardless of that customer’s physical limitations. For those few exceptions who don’t care, the federal government passed the Americans Disability Act which prescribes specific levels of considerations for those who are physically challenged. And the details of that act are of noble intent.

But as usual, where there is a law, there is a lawyer – at least some, looking for an opportunity to capitalize on the issue.

At the Chamber, we are hearing more and more from business owners who basically are being “shaken down” by unscrupulous attorneys using a weakness in the law to line their own pockets. In fact, Julie Griffiths from California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse supplied us a list of over 200 local businesses that have been slapped with lawsuits over the past two years.

If you don’t already know, here is how it works: Attorneys, or their hired employees, do a drive-by of a place of business or make a quick, innocent-looking visit. They eyeball your parking lot for missing signage, visit bathrooms to look at the mirror height, and check for products protruding into an aisle.

If they can find an excuse, quicker than a hiccup, you get a notice from said attorney’s office citing the violation with a threat of legal action. It might have been a violation you didn’t even have knowledge of as laws and requirements change year-to-year. However, “I just didn’t know” is not a defense that will work for this issue.

Since defending legal action can be expensive and fines can exceed $4,000 PER VIOLATION in the state of California, many businesses just settle prior to going to court. Some might define that as “extortion”, but since I only got a D-minus” in high-school English, what do I know?

Here is what I do know. The tricky question of ADA compliance is a moving target. While there is no perfect defense, you better your odds by taking a couple of steps. Consider hiring a CASP (Certified Access Specialist). While there is a cost, it’s not prohibitive. If possible make sure you order the inspection through your attorney so it remains confidential.  After the inspection, if there are areas of concern, it is recommended that you fix your building’s exterior first. Most suits filed cite the outside of a business because those violations tend to be easier for predatory lawyers to identify.

If you should get served with a suit, hire an attorney immediately. While you still are responsible (current law does not allow you time to make corrections), you may be able to get some leniency if you fix issues within 30 days. Many times it takes longer than that, but sometimes it doesn’t.

Meanwhile the Chamber will continue our efforts to pass an Assembly bill and/or Senate bill that would first require “notice” be given to businesses allowing a chance to correct violations before being hauled into court. But until that happens, you should understand where you might be in jeopardy and you need to do whatever is necessary to protect yourself as best you can. Beware of being “the next one”.

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