Stettinski: Protecting San Jose’s small businesses from frivolous ADA lawsuits
An aerial view of downtown San Jose is seen in this file photo.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law with the intention of eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities.

This law is critical to provide access to those with disabilities, a law that the San Jose Downtown Association fully supports. We also support actions taken to ensure spaces currently not compliant are made compliant, at times through legal action if necessary.

What we do not support is legal action taken with the sole intention to financially benefit from it. According to the California Retail Hardware Owners Association, 5,930 claims were filed in California in 2021, more than half of the claims filed nationwide.

San Jose’s small businesses have encountered way too many of these lawsuits, initiated by a handful of law offices that do not have the well-being of our community in mind, but are focused on getting “settlement” money to enrich themselves. These frivolous ADA-related lawsuits are targeting small businesses for every penny they have.

Businesses in a complaint could resolve the issues through open communication and cooperation. Yet, opportunistic lawyers use complaints as ammunition to immediately file lawsuits that can potentially bankrupt our small businesses. About 30 to 40 boilerplate lawsuits are filed per day against California businesses, many of which are in marginalized neighborhoods and/or affect minority-owned businesses.

The financial burden of legal fees, settlements and damage to their reputation leaves our small business owners in perpetual fear of what could be termed “drive-by litigation.” Even when enterprises emerge victorious in court, the damage to their reputation and finances can be irreparable, all while lining the pockets of these trial lawyers.

The businesses in San Jose’s downtown area are our lifeblood; they embody our energy, innovation and unique character. Protecting them against legal system abuse should be a no-brainer for officials.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was established with the right goals in mind—to promote inclusivity and ensure accessibility for all. This is a mission that everyone should wholeheartedly support. Simply requiring a good-faith effort to resolve issues before seeking litigation would ensure lawsuits aren’t immediately available as tools of extortion without first giving the business a fair chance to become ADA compliant without them.

This year, Senate Bill 585, which would have provided a “time to fix” period for businesses of 50 employees or less, navigated its way successfully through the state Senate and passed with a supermajority. Unfortunately, the Assembly judiciary committee wouldn’t even give the bill the time of day to be heard.

We hope the state Legislature will once again attempt to pass that bill in this next legislative session. Lawmakers must take up this common-sense reform if they truly care about getting businesses to do whatever they can to be ADA compliant, and at the same time protect them from exploitational lawsuits. It’s in our community’s interest that they do.

Together, we can safeguard the heartbeat of San Jose, ensuring a prosperous future for our downtown and the entire state. Let’s stand united for our small businesses, city and the true spirit of accessibility and inclusivity. The more business owners and concerned citizens reach out to their elected officials, the higher the chances that SB 585 can no longer be ignored or swept aside.

Alex Stettinski is CEO of the San Jose Downtown Association.

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