Have you ever walked into a public restroom in California and wondered about the odd placement of a mirror on the wall or the unusual spacing of fixtures? If so, you have gotten a glimpse of what California builders, remodelers, owners, developers, architects, as well as planning and code officials, are required to address every time they build, remodel, or repair a public facility — any building open to the public. By law, they must follow the most-current accessibility requirements in the California Building Code (Title 24), the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG), and related materials. These California requirements, which are much stricter than those in the Federal ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), apply to all commercial and public buildings and public areas in the state. This includes restaurants, theaters, factories, hotels, motels, just to name a few.
These accessibility standards require that all members of the public, virtually without exception, have access. The design must be approved by local zoning boards before the plans are approved. Accessibility standards apply not only to new construction, but may be applied to remodeling or renovation of existing buildings. This affects many older businesses.
The 2000 Census identified nearly 6.2 million Californians as having a disability. By the year 2010, this number is expected to increase to 11 million. California state government is responsible for providing service to all citizens, and accessibility laws ensure that these services are extended to those with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 to improve access for the disabled to almost every public business. Buildings are required to have barrier-free entryways, toilet facilities designed for wheelchair access, signs in Braille, low countertops, obstacle-free passageways, reserved parking, and numerous other features. Despite the enactment of the ADA, many in the disabled community report that a majority of businesses have made little or no effort to comply with this 15-year-old law.
For this reason, some people with disabilities have made it their crusade to ensure that the law is followed. While most disabled customers are motivated by a sincere desire to ensure access for all, there is a small group of opportunists who have partnered with a few law firms to track down and file suit against any business where they can find even the most trivial violation. These law firms appear to be responsible for the majority of ADA lawsuits — in fact, there have been over 1,000 ADA accessibility suits filed by just one professional plaintiff. That 1,000-suit plaintiff, George Louie, canvasses Northern California small businesses and calls himself a rebellious litigant. In Southern California, another litigant ADA enforcer, Jared Molski, has filed close to 500 lawsuits against gas stations, bowling alleys and small businesses. Molski has dubbed himself as the Sheriff.
Maybe California provides a fertile litigious society that fuels this wildfire of lawsuits. Two California ADA statutes provide either $1,000 or $4,000 in minimum damages, plus attorney fees, for each successful claimant. An aggressive, highly observant claimant can maximize these awards by individually listing each condition he finds. Some file for damages against dozens of businesses at a time. This is the plight small business owners find themselves in. Many of them, when faced with such a lawsuit, end up just handing thousands in cash to the complainant, rather than fighting a court battle that will likely cost them even more.
Part of the problem is, ironically, that California standards are higher than those mandated by the Federal ADA. In some cases, state and federal regulations are in direct conflict. A business can follow ADA requirements to the letter and still be in violation of California law. It is estimated that only 5 percent of California public buildings are in complete compliance.
Few building inspectors and architects are fully informed on every nuance of state compliance standards. The ADA and California requirements for building accessibility are given in intricate, technical detail in state pamphlets. However, without any illustrations or diagrams, where the contractor can see how to build to those requirements, many are just making their best guess. Add to the misinformation and flawed interpretation the law firms that make their fortunes by sending clients in wheelchairs to find accessibility violations, and you have a big problem for California businesses and the contractors who build for them.