In the latest chapter of a struggle between San Francisco merchants and disabled people suing them for better access, several Richmond District business owners have decided to close or move in the face of lawsuits demanding alterations and monetary damages.
The trend is raising concerns among area shopkeepers, the district's supervisor, Eric Mar, and other city officials.
In the past month, Craig Thomas Yates, who uses a wheelchair, sued three merchants and the landlord of a building at Clement and Arguello streets, arguing that access impediments in the building's retail stores and restaurants violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Other small businesses in the area have received similar complaints in recent months.
Lea Dimond, who has owned Thidwick Books in the building since 1999, plans to shut down her store today and try to find a new place rather than fight Yates or significantly alter the configuration of her 865-square-foot shop. She believes she would lose too much inventory to be financially viable if she made the changes necessary to create room for a wheelchair to maneuver.
Dimond thinks she'll do fine when she finds a new location, but she's frustrated that the city did not warn her of the ADA issues when she received permits for her store. And while she says she and her fellow merchants are in favor of access for all customers, she believes Yates primarily is after money.
She says she tried to make every accommodation for Yates when he came to her shop and later hired an ADA access compliance expert to try to understand whether she could meet the federal requirements.
"Yates is picking off small business owners like grapes on a vine," said Dimond, noting that similar access suits have been settled for tens of thousands of dollars. "This is vexatious litigation, and the city has to be made aware that its commercial landscape is being damaged by this. ... Small businesses are really being hurt."
Yates could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Tim Thimesch, an attorney representing Yates in his suit against Dimond and a handful of other Richmond District merchants, bristled at the bookstore owner's assertion that Yates is motivated by cash.
"Isn't it cheap and easy to allege that he's doing this for money? And, there's no way to disprove it," Thimesch said. "The real question is whether the businesses are in compliance. If Yates and others didn't seek redress, how would the access problem be resolved?"
Thimesch, who is based in Walnut Creek, said Dimond and other merchants have had plenty of notice that they were out of compliance with access laws - based on letters Yates sent to them - and have done nothing in response. The ADA laws have been around for 20 years, he noted.
Mission District cases
Yates brought a spate of cases against restaurants and small business owners in the Mission District earlier this year, causing some to temporarily close, raising an uproar in the community and garnering attention from city officials.
But Yates is not the only so-called serial litigant suing under the ADA. He and other plaintiffs have partnered with attorneys to target neighborhood business districts with similar claims for years, and the law provides them with a vehicle to do so.
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, plaintiffs with disabilities nationwide have filed thousands of lawsuits after discovering that, despite laws dictating access to the same goods and services as the rest of the general public, steps, doors and other architectural barriers still exclude them.
The federal ADA law is enforced through civil lawsuits. When a person with a disability believes he has experienced a lack of access, he has a right to sue. Under California's Unruh Act, a plaintiff also may demand $4,000 per impediment.
A Bay Area attorney who has represented Yates in other cases during the past few years is one of the best known and most controversial ADA accessibility lawyers in California.
Thomas Frankovich, who helped Yates sue a number of Mission District merchants, was the subject of a San Francisco Weekly cover story in 2006, "Wheelchairs of Fortune," for his multimillion-dollar ADA suit business.
That same year, Frankovich was barred from filing cases in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles for six months after a judge ruled him a vexatious litigant, a legal term for people not acting in good faith when filing suits. Like Dimond, the Mission District merchants sued by Yates also want the city to do more to inform and help protect them from being targeted for access claims.
A common refrain among the shopkeepers who have been sued is that they believed they had complied with all laws when they obtained city permits and licenses to initially open.
Scott Hauge owns a San Francisco insurance business and is the president of Small Business California, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for small business interests across the state.
Hauge started a program nearly a decade ago to try to help merchants fund ADA corrections on their property. Very few owners decided to make any changes, he said.
"Small businesses can tend to ignore these problems, and then they scream when they get sued," Hauge said.
Mar, the San Francisco supervisor who represents the Richmond District, said he has been getting calls from merchants about ADA litigation since he took office in 2008. The suits have hurt the neighborhood's economy, he said.
Mar said he liked the idea of changing the city business permit process so that it includes information about ADA compliance. He also is encouraging owners who need to make costly alterations to seek help with financing through the city's small business office.
Link to article: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/S-F-bookshop-owner-to-close-over-ADA-lawsuit-2452370.php