Lawsuits against San Francisco businesses for failing to provide access for wheelchair users have been on the rise in recent months, and now some merchants are calling for a plan to protect small businesses.
Plaintiffs represented by Thomas Frankovich, a San Rafael attorney who has made a career out of filing suits against businesses that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, have filed dozens of federal lawsuits in the last few months. Frankovich was suspended from filing in federal court in 2008 but has returned to San Francisco.
“The ones that are getting sued, it’s because they blew it off and they got sued,” he said, speaking about businesses’ inability to respond to complaint letters. “It’s like, hey, it’s time to pay the piper.”
But instead of fighting the lawsuits as has been the reaction of many businesses in recent years, several Noe Valley businesses such as Bliss Bar and Valley Tavern took quick action and put in access ramps or lowered sections of their bars to allow better access, according to Robert Roddick, president of the Noe Valley Merchants Association.
“It may be unfair, but we want handicapped customers, as well as everyone else,” Roddick said.
And it seems to have worked. Between 10 and 15 businesses in Noe Valley got letters, but only one lawsuit has been filed. The association is calling for a regulation that would make building owners disclose whether a space is ADA compliant before a new tenant moves in.
That is one potential solution, according to Supervisor Scott Wiener. But he said he is working to make it easier for businesses to bring in special inspectors with the California State Architect’s certified access specialist program to check businesses for compliance. Such a certification protects businesses against state lawsuits, but it doesn’t necessarily help in federal court.
About a decade ago Scott Hauge, head of Small Business California, tried to educate small businesses on how to react to complaint letters and become ADA compliant, an effort he called a “failure” because no one listened.
“What is different today is that the attitude of the small-business people has changed dramatically,” Hauge said. “They don’t ignore it anymore. They’re much more sensitive.”
Frankovich confirmed that the trend is shifting in many San Francisco communities. Usually, only 15 percent of the businesses contacted would respond to letters, but he’s seen 60 percent compliance rates in places like Noe Valley, the Richmond district and the Mission.