Access v. Abuse: The ADA’s Impact in Silicon Valley Part 1
San Jose’s Cafe Crema, known for its charming, cozy feel and homey exterior, closed its doors for good on Friday marking the end of an era for one of the city’s most frequented mom and pop coffee shops.
A political bastion on The Alameda — an iconic San Jose neighborhood — the original Cafe Crema first opened its doors nearly 13 years ago and had since been a community gathering space where local politicians, grassroots activists and business leaders met to discuss some of the city’s most pressing issues.
But in an interview with San José Spotlight this week, owner June Tran said the decision to close came after a drawn out legal battle left her with no other option.
Predatory ADA lawsuits
The business was sued two years ago for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act after a San Jose man in a wheelchair was unable to enter the shop when he could not get past the steps leading up to the entrance, according to the lawsuit. While his friend went inside to buy him a coffee, the man left frustrated by the experience.
“I’ll miss the building a lot, I’ll miss our customers and all of the memories we have,” Tran said. “It was hard to make this decision.”
While the business owner acknowledged her nearly 100 year-old building needed some upgrades, it appears the beloved coffee shop has fallen prey to a predatory ADA lawsuit — similar to one of the thousands filed by serial plaintiffs who use the law to extort money from small businesses and force their closure.
The disabled man’s attorney, Tanya E. Moore, for years has been the subject of much scrutiny for suing thousands of small businesses across the South Bay, filing more than 1,400 ADA cases in recent years. The suits have forced mom and pop shops like Cafe Crema to close, as many owners can’t afford to bring their businesses up to code or settle. A little less than three years ago, a beloved San Jose staple, Time Deli, had to shut its doors for the same reason.
About two years ago, Moore was faced with a federal racketeering civil lawsuit for filing lawsuits based on “false allegations” of disability and injury, first reported by the Fresno Bee. The attorney who filed the lawsuit, Moji Saniefar, claims Moore’s ex-husband Ronald, who is a plaintiff in more than 200 filed cases, faked a disability in order “to collect quick settlements.”
“Defendants have perverted the purpose of the ADA and related state laws for their own greed and financial gain,” the lawsuit said. “Each member of the criminal enterprise helps to further the scheme to make money for all involved in the conspiracy at the expense of California businesses and citizens, most of whom are small business owners and immigrants to this country and cannot afford legal representation.”
After multiple attempts, Moore could not be reached for comment Friday.
“It’s very unfortunate — it’s a place that has been a staple of the community,” said Councilmember Dev Davis, whose district includes the coffee shop. “These lawsuits have been brought to multiple small businesses and caused them to either go out of business or to have to put out tens of thousands of dollars to change something that wasn’t impacting their customers.”
Tran said she could not meet the lawsuit’s demands to bring the entrance up to code, claiming it would cost her upwards of $100,000 to tear down and rebuild an ADA compliant ramp. The other option to opt for a settlement was not in the cards either, added Tran, who said she could not afford paying a massive $60,000 payout.
And contrary to most business owners’ beliefs, older buildings are not “grandfathered” into the ADA and are susceptible to these lawsuits.
“It’s an older building with a lot of steps, that’s what makes it unique and beautiful. But it’s difficult to build around and it’s going to be very costly,” Tran said. “And even if we settle, there’s always the risk of someone else coming around and suing us again.”
Protecting disabled residents
Still, in many cases, the law is one of the only tools that continues to uphold the rights of disabled individuals who otherwise do not have a separate legal claim for discrimination. The federal law, passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination based on a disability and has long been hailed as an overdue civil-rights victory by disability-rights activists.
While landmark lawsuits claiming discrimination under the law have led to victories that have secured employment, education, financial, voting and transportation rights for millions of disabled individuals, a study from 2017 shows there are still major hurdles disabled Americans face where they’re less likely to hold a job or go to college while being more likely to have chronic health problems and live in poverty.
But in California unscrupulous lawyers bypass the law’s good intentions by taking advantage of the state’s generous payouts to disabled individuals who sue, often targeting hundreds of small businesses at once, according to Sacramento-based small business defense attorney Rick Morin. For many ADA cases, the minimum in statutory damages starts at $4,000.
When a Republican Congress enacted the law 30 years ago, Morin said lawmakers wanted to avoid creating an “ADA police force” or a bureaucratic agency to oversee the law’s compliance. No agency checks for violations and businesses are not given warnings or a “grace period” to correct violations.
Plaintiffs can simply sue with little or no notice. That’s why law firms like Moore’s can easily swoop in with a lawsuit.
“What (lawmakers) instead did was give private individuals the ability to enforce it themselves,” Morin said. “What has happened as a result though is that there’s a cottage industry of attorneys in California that go find businesses that they believe are not complying with these rules and regulations.
“They go straight to federal court and file these lawsuits and the big players in this area file hundreds and hundreds of these things a year,” he added.
These “shakedown” lawsuits, added Morin, are often based on small, “technical violations” that can be easily fixed if a letter is sent to the business owner. But under California law, a disabled person cannot claim money if they send the business owner a letter with their complaint first.
“When you look at these lawsuits, what they’re usually suing you over is the low-hanging fruit,” Morin said. “Money is a big part of this — if they were just trying to ensure compliance, they’d call you or send you a nice little letter… but instead they go straight to court.”
A coffee shop with a long history
Cafe Crema first opened in 2007, when Tran decided to give up her career as a social worker and start roasting coffee beans. The small-time coffee shop served coffee, tea, pastries and lunch options such as sandwiches and salads. Over the years, the shop grew into a well-recognized brand, leading Tran to open another location down the street in 2017.
The neighborhood, long seen as the stronghold of the city’s Democratic Party, has drawn young and older crowds alike as a hotspot for political activity. The shop was no different, always buzzing with rife conversation on local government and politics, keen to attract a host of religious coffee drinkers across the political spectrum.
“It’s going to be missed,” said Terry Reilly, one of the coffee shop’s regulars and retired political consultant who formerly worked for ex-Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio. “This is an institution.”
To many neighbors, the shop provided a much-needed resource for several nearby organizations, such as the Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center next door, and ironically, for several students in need of work experience that Tran employed from the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s post-secondary program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
While the 950 Alameda location permanently closed Friday, coffee aficionados can visit the other Cafe Crema location at 1202 Alameda. The original Cafe Crema will be consolidated on Feb. 1 into Tran’s restaurant, Pier 402, located at 238 Race Street.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series examining the impact of the ADA in Silicon Valley. Look for Part 2 next week.