Lawyer Who Has Filed Over 1,000 ADA Lawsuits Forces Burger Joint to Close

This week in Sacramento, California, locally owned eatery Ford’s Real Hamburgers closed its doors for good after 21 years of operation.  Sadly, a small business going under is not that uncommon in this difficult economic climate, but the story of why Ford’s closed is somewhat unique: the burger joint was sued for violating the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not having a handicapped parking space or accessible bathrooms.

Scott Johnson, a quadriplegic attorney, sued the burger stand in September of 2012, claiming the restaurant failed to make “reasonable modifications” to accommodate disabled patrons.  Mr. Johnson alleges he experienced “difficulty, discomfort, and embarrassment” when he visited, and has requested a court order to force renovations along with the cost of attorney fees and $4,000 for each violation.  Restaurant owner Hank Vereschzagin told news reporters that, although he cut staff in an effort to comply with the law, he was forced to close down in the face of the ADA lawsuit.

Enforcing the ADA: A History of Lawsuits

What Mr. Johnson did is legal, however, there is another side to this lawyer’s story: he has been a plaintiff in over 1,000 federal lawsuits against businesses large and small claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act over the last 9 years.  Since 2003, Johnson has been the plaintiff in 1,079 lawsuits, with each one settling for amounts between $4,000 and $6,000.  His profitable crusade has netted him a comfortable lifestyle, but Johnson claims it is not about the money.

Calling himself an enforcer of a federal law that is too often overlooked, Johnson believes he is performing a service to disabled members of society by actively seeking compliance with the ADA.  Mr. Johnson claims that he has given every business ample opportunity to fix the problems that led to the litigation before proceeding with each case, and argues that none of his lawsuits are frivolous.

This has not stopped him from accruing a laundry list of enemies along the way.  Accusing him of abusing federal law for his own personal gain, fellow attorneys have considered action to stop Johnson by forcing him to gain court approval before filing a lawsuit.  Business owners and radio personalities accuse Johnson of “legalized crime” that victimizes small businesses by enforcing ADA regulations unnecessarily and for profit. 

Does the ADA Need Rigorous Enforcement?

Lawyers like Scott Johnson are polarizing figures in the legal world, and rightly so.  On one hand every one of Johnson's lawsuits has been successful because of ADA violations.  On the other hand, the lawyer makes a sizable sum from each lawsuit, and is the plaintiff in almost all of them - meaning that he isn't representing another disabled person who has come to him complaining of unfair practices. Johnson has found the violations of the ADA on his own, making it easy to think that he is either overly sensitive, or has actively sought out opportunities to profit from a lawsuit.  Either scenario can shake the credibility of his litigation.

Scott Johnson’s actions raise interesting questions about whether or not the law needs crusaders to enforce rules for the benefit of others – particularly when no one benefits more than him.   It is hard not to view these lawsuits with a healthy degree of cynicism, and, in some instances, anger.   In this case, Sacramento loses a modestly successful small business, handicapped people across the city gain nothing tangible, and Johnson, who had visited Ford’s on only two occasions, is in line to receive a few thousand dollars and add another notch to his belt.  

Regardless of how people feel about Mr. Johnson, he has the law on his side and enforces important federal law.  While his excessively active litigation has built him a comfortable lifestyle, it has also corrected ADA violations when others remained silent. Perhaps, at the end of the day, Scott Johnson is not the hero that the ADA deserves, but the one that it needs right now.

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