A rash of lawsuits against Belmont Shore businesses, primarily restaurants, is part of an ongoing pattern of Americans with Disabilities Act legal actions for profit, according to prominent Long Beach attorney Michele Dobson.
Russell Handy of San Diego law firm Porter Handy has notified more than 15 business owners in the Shore that a lawsuit has been filed against them for violating ADA requirements. The plaintiff in all the lawsuits is listed as Chris Langer.
Dobson, who specializes in representing small business owners and nonprofits, spoke to members of the Belmont Shore Business Association at the association's meeting Tuesday. She said that she had begun dealing with ADA lawsuits in 2011, and has been faced with cycles of serial lawsuits since then.
"Last year, a man named Jose Valez made $1.2 million from ADA lawsuits," Dobson said. "These things run in cycles. This January, a group of Naples businesses got hit. All from the same person."
Dobson said that Porter Handy was the law firm in that group of lawsuits as well. The partners call themselves the Center For Disability Access, and appear to have focused exclusively on ADA lawsuits for more than a decade.
Emails and calls seeking comment for this story were not returned. An internet search showed Porter Handy as the attorney of record in lawsuits back to 2007, and the firm's website says it has been filing such cases since 1996.
"It's been around as a way to make a living for some time," Dobson told the BSBA membership. "They're always pushing for a settlement. When they have to sit for a deposition, they back off quickly… They want the checkbook out, and the negotiation to be about how much. We want to take the position that the checkbook is not out at all."
One reason serial lawsuits are so prevalent in California, Dobson said, is that the state has passed a law offering to pay $4,000 to people who report ADA violations. The person does not have to be disabled, or even to have been impacted by the violation to claim the reward.
When asked who had been served with a notice of intent to sue, more than 15 hands went up Tuesday. Dobson said similar numbers had been impacted in Naples and the downtown entertainment district.
"I was served Nov. 13," one business owner, who asked not to be identified, said. "It says I'm not in compliance with having a proper dining area… I've been in business for 26 years and this has never come up before."
Dobson said that she is working now to have the plaintiff in the Naples lawsuits, also Langer through Porter Handy, declared a "vexatious litigant" in a lawsuit. If the court agrees, that would mean he couldn't file more ADA lawsuits without permission from a judge. A similar approach is being considered against the Porter Handy law firm itself, she added.
"What I want to know is, will you join us in that lawsuit?" Dobson asked. "We can deal with the individual cases, but the bigger issue is we want to keep him out of Long Beach."
Several people at Tuesday's meeting raised their hands to join before Dobson even finished her question.
Dobson also said she had approached the city attorney to become involved after the series of lawsuits in Naples, but he declined at that time. She said that now there have been multiple lawsuits in three areas of Long Beach — Naples, downtown and Belmont Shore — she would make the request again.
Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at email@example.com.