Neighborhood Nonprofit Responds to Accessibility Litigation Targeting Small Businesses
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires “public accommodations to provide goods and services to people with disabilities on an equal basis with the rest of the general public.” Noncompliance with ADA standards constitutes a violation of the civil rights of persons with disabilities; plaintiffs who feel their civil rights have been violated can file private lawsuits against noncompliant businesses. In the past few years, there has been a tremendous proliferation of ADA lawsuits, with more than 14,000 lawsuits being filed against vulnerable California small businesses by only a handful of lawyers. In San Francisco, these lawsuits are prevalent among neighborhoods with older building stock and large concentrations of immigrant-owned businesses. Beginning in December of last year, several small businesses in the Excelsior were targeted by a string of ADA lawsuits which affected both property owners and their commercial tenants with extremely costly fees and settlements. These lawsuits raised concerns among neighboring businesses and spurred EAG into action.
A community-based nonprofit organization working to revitalize the commercial corridor in the Excelsior, EAG has worked to support neighborhood small businesses since 2002. EAG’s ADA Program has been a multi-tiered response to educate Excelsior merchants about the requirements of the ADA law and guide them on a pathway to accessibility. EAG has worked with local volunteers to conduct trilingual ADA outreach door to door on Mission Street. In March, EAG organized a free Cantonese-language workshop for Chinese business and property owners because the Chinese population has been singled out by a disproportionate number of these lawsuits. Finally, EAG recruited a group of the most vulnerable businesses to participate in its ADA Compliance Inspection Program, which provided inspections and individual consultations from Certified Access Specialists of Sally Swanson Architects. Funded by the City’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, this program provided inspections which can cost up to $5,000 to nine Excelsior businesses for free.
“Education has been the most important component of this work,” explained EAG Corridor Manager Nicole Agbayani, “Many Excelsior merchants believe that ADA regulations do not apply to them because their businesses predate the law. We are spreading the message that ADA applies to every business and our organization is here to help get them on the right track.”