California cities are suing law firm accused of abusing ADA to target minority small businesses

The cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles filed a civil lawsuit this week against the San Diego-based law firm Potter Handy, claiming it is unlawfully filing thousands of claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act ( ADA) statewide without the required legal status.

The law firm is sneakily circumventing California’s Unruh law, the cities insist, whose procedural requirements would in many cases prohibit such cases from going to state court. The Unruh Act also allows plaintiffs to hit ADA violators with a minimum damages claim of $4,000 per violation beyond any regulations, unlike the federal ADA.

Potter Handy is trying to have it both ways, the lawsuit insists. “Using false claims of quality to obtain an ADA injunction in federal court – where the [California] The Legislature’s procedural reforms on abusive Unruh litigation do not apply – and by pairing the federal claim with a state Unruh claim, Potter Handy is able to avoid these reforms while still demanding that small businesses pay him the hefty damages available under the Unruh law.

To have proper legal status, the cities insist, Potter Handy’s client must have “personally encountered an ADA violation in the business” and prove that he “was deterred or prevented from entering the business.” because of this, and genuinely intends to return to the business after the barrier is lifted.”

The lawsuit insists it is “literally impossible for Potter Handy’s Serial Filer clients, at least some of whom are wheelchair users, to repeatedly visit the thousands of businesses they are suing, particularly those that are located hundreds of kilometers from their place of residence.

Since the company’s allegedly aggrieved customers “often do not personally encounter obstacles themselves (often performing superficial ‘drive-bys’ or having assistants or investigators visit companies at their place) and that they almost never return to the businesses they are suing after the cases are resolved,” Potter Handy is therefore also violating state laws that prohibit “deception or collusion, or consent[ing] to any deceit or collusion, with intent to deceive the court or any party.”

The cities’ complaint insists that evidentiary records already support their claims, including that “the federal courts have [previously] awarded corporate attorneys’ fees and sanctioned Potter Handy’s lawyers… for making frivolous or false allegations. Other federal courts … have dismissed Serial Filer’s cases for lack of standing, finding their claims simply not credible. Additionally, the astonishing number of cases Potter Handy files on behalf of Serial Filers – over 800 federal cases on behalf of Serial Filer Orlando Garcia, approximately 1,700 federal cases on behalf of Serial Filer Brian Whitaker, and thousands more on behalf of…various other Serial Filers make it literally impossible for serial registrants to have personally encountered every obstacle listed, let alone intend to return to hundreds of businesses hundreds of miles away from their house. »

Two of the plaintiffs in thousands of these Potter Handy cases live in Los Angeles, but according to the lawsuit, Los Angeles-area courts grew suspicious of them and began dismissing their lawsuits. So one of these serial filers “went out of business in Los Angeles in early 2021” and the company moved on to filing “an enormous number of federal cases on its behalf in federal courts in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, ultimately reaching over 500 new cases filed between January 2021 and February 2022.”

Similarly, another serial filer “on whose behalf Potter Handy filed nearly 500 ADA/Unruh physical barrier cases in Los Angeles federal courts beginning in 2019, suddenly stopped filing lawsuits there at beginning of 2021….Defendants began filing…more than 320 physical barrier cases ADA/Unruh cases in the…Northern District of California over a ten-month period from May 2021 to March 2022” on behalf of this other man .

Cities finds this highly suspicious, especially since the two men who have suddenly become so contentious with the ADA in the Bay Area live in Los Angeles County. This change in locations where they would have suddenly faced ADA-repairable personal access barriers “could only have been coordinated by and under the direction of” Potter Handy. “Furthermore, it underscores the fact that the Serial Filers lawsuits are not intended to remedy ADA violations personally encountered by Serial Filers in their daily lives in their own communities, but to maximize financial returns for defendants and the Serial Filers themselves by targeting vulnerable small businesses in plaintiff-friendly court venues.”

Cities argue they are defending an embattled minority targeted by Potter Handy: “Small businesses, especially those owned by immigrants and people for whom English is a second language, who are often less familiar with the complexities of the system legal, are rarely able to afford the risk and expense of defending themselves in court. pay him cash settlements, that the companies actually violated the ADA.” Cities believe tens of millions have been squeezed out of California small businesses via lawsuits from that one company.

Dennis Price of Potter Handy told Courthouse News that “the allegation that we targeted a particular community is a heinous lie and is not supported by any evidence…our cases are filed statewide. They do not target any particular neighborhood or business.”

Bernard P. Love