‘You cannot win’

A Sacramentan with a history of targeting businesses for ADA violations strikes again

A man with a reputation for milking a legal cash cow recently zeroed in on several Sacramento shops. Just before Thanksgiving, East Sacramento’s Sudz Yer Dudz, Stop & Shop, and Coffee Works, and Midtown’s Suzie Burger were sued by George Louie, who alleged the businesses are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to the business owners, Louie’s citations include poorly painted parking spots and missing signs.

In the letter dated November 18 provided to SN&R by one of the business owners, Louie wrote: “I’ll give you 20 days to settle the matter out of court for $6,000. It will cost you thousand of dollars to defend this lawsuit. Plus, you cannot win.”

Kawal, the owner of Stop & Shop as well as Sudz Yer Dudz, said he’d also had a phone conversation with Louie wherein the plaintiff repeated his “pay up or go to court” message. At the store last week, Kawal (who requested SN&R use only his first name) said this will not happen.

This all may sound strangely familiar to other local businesses. In the past, Louie has sued several other Sacramento businesses for ADA violations. The Sacramento County Superior Court lists more than 100 lawsuits, from Mr. Pickle’s Sandwich Shop to the U.S. Bank. Due to strict federal and state standards, these businesses have little recourse other than to settle or go to court.

Repeated attempts to reach Louie, who is reportedly disabled and uses a wheelchair, were not successful. In an SN&R article from 2006, however, Louie said he is after compliance, not money. “I am not making a killing on these cases,” he explained. “I’m getting a lot of respect and a lot of places fixed up.” (See “Full-court press” by Chrisanne Beckner; SN&R News; November 16, 2006.)

California has one of the strictest national standards for ensuring disabled access to businesses under the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act. The ADA, passed by the federal government in 1990, has added to the complexity.

“It is almost impossible to get 100 percent legal compliance,” said Laura Marabito, a Sacramento attorney not involved in the case. She explained that the technical requirements in California are different “in almost every way” from federal requirements. “I have seen everything from a $450 settlement to replacing all the counters at Chipotle,” she said.

So what is a business owner to do?

Marabito suggests businesses take advantage of a California program to minimize settlement amounts. The program, called CASp, or Voluntary Certified Access Specialist program, sends an inspector to businesses to look for violations. The businesses then have a set time period to fix the problems to minimize legal damages.

John Shahabian, owner of Coffee Works, said he remodeled his bathroom two years ago to make it more ADA compliant. His parking space, however, caught Louie’s eye. According to Shahabian, the space had faded paint, was not wide enough to accommodate a van and did not have a sign with legally required language.

This does not surprise Marabito. “There are 50 ways to have a parking violation alone,” she said.

Since Louie’s November 18 letter, Shahabian has added more signs, paint and an extra, wider parking space. He has also received calls from attorneys who have battled Louie elsewhere and wish to take him on again. Shahabian and his lawyer say they are still determining their next course of action.

“I have been in business since 1982 and haven’t had a complaint,” he said. “The economy is down and business is slow right now, so this [lawsuit] sure doesn’t help.”