ADA lawsuit puts Weimar store's future in doubt

See a video report below from Weimar on one of the latest businesses to be hit by a lawsuit by disabled access attorney Scott Johnson
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - The Weimar Country Store was just barely hanging on before it got hit with a lawsuit from a Carmichael attorney on alleged Americans With Disabilities Act non-compliance, its owners say. Now the store – a center for the rural community, just west of Colfax – is facing a future clouded with doubt and even more economic uncertainty, said Mike and Carol Gaines. The couple has owned the store for six years and Carol worked there 22 years before that. It’s the place for locals or travelers pulling off the freeway to buy a lottery ticket or two and a pack of smokes. There’s food and beverages. And Carol admits there’s always gossip to be shared. “There’s plenty of that,” Carol Gaines said. Unfortunately for the Gaineses, the talk has revolved around the shaky future of their store after Carmichael attorney Scott Johnson initiated a civil lawsuit in January similar to hundreds of others he has launched in the region on perceived ADA problems. Johnson didn’t respond to the Journal’s request for an interview but has said in the past that his goal is to have businesses conform with federally-mandated requirements. Critics say that he’s making businesses spend money to settle his lawsuits – usually $5,000 – that could be better spent upgrading facilities. Johnson contends the work should have been done before legal proceedings were started. For the Weimar Country Store, the lawsuit – plus legal expenses to hire their own lawyer, have an inspector determine what problems exist, and the cost of an upgrade – could be a crushing burden. “Business has been really slow this year,” Carol Gaines said. “The lack of snow and that impact on the ski business has killed business here.” Carol Gaines said they always felt the store was ADA-compliant, particularly after state lottery officials inspected the business and OK’d it for selling tickets. “We’ve had to take a loan out to hire an attorney,” Gaines said. “We have no extra money for this kind of stuff.” Now the business has had to cut staff hours to make ends meet. And the future is far from clear as the Gaineses move forward on the possibility of thousands of dollars in new, unexpected expenditures. The store was robbed at gunpoint in late 2010. The take was in the hundreds, they said, not close to what they are anticipating paying Johnson. And the alleged gunman – currently moving through the court system – is facing a prison term of several years if convicted. The two say they’re irked by the irony. “It’s criminal,” Mike Gaines said. “Instead of spending money on attorney fees, we should be allowed to put it toward compliance costs.” The Gaineses said they will support attempts in the state Legislature and federal arena to force predatory attorneys to back off and give small businesses time after a written notice of an ADA violation to make repairs. The most recent move came last month, when Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Roseville, introduced two measures to curtail what she considers “frivolous” ADA lawsuits. Assembly Bill 1878 would give businesses 120 days after written notice is received to correct a possible violation before a lawsuit can be filed. Beth Gaines contends that 98 percent of California businesses are out of compliance in some way and – as the law now stands – can be sued for railing height being off by a centimeter or parking-lot striping not being the right shade of a particular color. Weimar County Store customer Davina Weaver said she sees a potential tragedy for the community if the store closes because of financial burdens created by an ADA lawsuit. “It seems to me someone is making money off the backs of people who work hard and try to make a go of things,” Weaver said.