Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Fed up with what they describe as sleazy, unethical, business-killing lawsuits, about three dozen residents protested against local attorney Jason Singleton Dec. 20 at the Humboldt County Courthouse in Eureka.
But the push back against Singleton’s tactics is not confined to placards and protests. The owners of a popular McKinleyville bar are fighting Singleton in court, and their case may end up going before a jury in the coming year.
At Friday’s event, passing motorists honked their horns in support of the protesters as they held up cardboard signs declaring “Extortion is a crime,” “Ship Singleton Out” and “Porter St. Supporter.”
The protest was spurred by the November closure of Arcata’s Porter Street Barbeque, which was shuttered after one of Singleton’s many lawsuits against local businesses.
Singleton has sued hundreds of businesses, many of them local, alleging that they violated his clients’ rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. His lawsuits, although legal, have been compared to extortion, with Singleton demanding thousands of dollars to settle the cases, regardless of whether the businesses comply with the ADA or not.
“I watched this guy take too many businesses out,” said protest organizer Jimmy Blount. “The community is fed up with him.”
“It’s just wrong,” said McKinleyville resident Dave Varshock, who attended the protest and signed a petition asking that Singleton be disbarred for unethical legal practices.
Blount said the protest against Singleton will continue every Friday from noon to 2 p.m.
Clam Beach Inn puts up a challenge
For many of the businesses targeted by Singleton, it is cheaper to settle their cases with Singleton than fight him in court and face an uncertain outcome.
But the owners of the Clam Beach Inn, sued by Singleton a year ago, have no intention of paying the attorney the money he is demanding.
The McKinleyville inn’s legal troubles with Singleton began much the same way as Porter Street Barbeque’s legal problem – with a sketchy letter.
According to Orin Grangaard, who owns the establishment with his wife Marlene, the inn received a letter about a year ago from someone claiming that the inn violated a person’s rights under the ADA. The address on the envelope was written in handwriting so illegible that the owners could not figure out where it came from. So, in responding to the letter, they photocopied the address and mailed the response back to wherever it came from. Then, Singleton had papers served on the Clam Beach Inn, claiming that the businesses had violated his client’s rights under the ADA.
Orin Grangaard said he hired an attorney and started fighting the lawsuit. Meanwhile, he overhauled the old Clam Beach Inn, built in the 1940s, to make it ADA-compliant. He spent thousands of dollars and did much of the work himself.
The bathrooms were remodeled. Wider doors were installed, as well as new toilets, wheelchair accessible sinks and metal grab bars. The parking lot was reconfigured with a van-accessible handicapped parking space right up front. He purchased new tables for the inn to make it friendlier for people with wheelchairs.
The work, Grangaard said, was done after consulting with an ADA expert.
“Everything we could do, we did,” Grangaard said, adding that he is very supportive of providing access to persons with disabilities.
Singleton’s response to the upgrades: Gimme my money.
Singleton, Grangaard said, wants the Clam Beach Inn to fork over about $12,000. Rather than pay Singleton, Grangaard plans to fight the lawyer in court. If Singleton’s case against Grangaard does not get tossed out of court by a judge, there may be a jury trial in a couple of months, he said.
Singleton did not respond to a phone message left on his answering machine Friday by the Union. However, with mounting criticism of his legal tactics, he sent a press release last week to the North Coast Journal. Here is what Singleton wrote:
California adopted its access regulations, incorporated into the state building code, in 1982. The ADA became effective in 1994. 20 years ago. The issue of access for people with disabilities has been in the media many many times over the years. Any facility that claims, as many do, “that we did not have notice we had to provide access,” is intentionally putting their head in the sand. Moreover, every single client of mine sends a letter asking for access long before any legal action. Every time, without fail, for over a decade.
Much of the angst should be directed at the building departments. The state attorney general has long ago informed all building departments to enforce California access standards in the California Building Code. If the building departments stopped granting final approval of construction and additions that were inaccessible, there would be no ADA suits.
The vitriol that surrounds this issue stems from the fact that people with disabilities remind the able bodied of their mortality. Yes Virginia, we are all going to grow old and be disabled. Look into the deep recesses of your subconscious and come to terms with this fact. In a culture that worships youth and beauty, this is more than some can take.
Given the radical boom bust cycle of the real estate market in recent years, there are more than a handful of lease agreements which are presently unfavorable to either the landlord or the tenant. If a landlord or tenant chooses to use the cost of remediating barriers to access as a vehicle to end a lease, that is their issue. I cannot comment on any particular case.
I can say that the dollars that were spent at any closed facility have not left the county. They will be spent at some other business, very likely one that is accessible.
No one seems to have an issue with the idea that if a business cannot be profitable if it makes payroll tax deposits, workman’s compensation premiums, and complies with food safety regulations, that it should close. But when it comes to providing access for people with disabilities, the same premise does not apply. Well wake up and smell the coffee. Access for people with disabilities is not charity. It is a civil right.
There are federal tax credits available for money spent to remove barriers to access. This has been true, every year, since 1994. A dollar for dollar reduction of tax obligation. A facility that claims they cannot afford to provide access, is: 1. Misinformed. 2. Barely profitable anyway. or, 3. Lying.
My advocacy in Humboldt County over the last 16 years has done more to improve access for people with disabilities and remove architectural barriers than any one person in the County’s history. You only hear in the media about the lawsuits. What is not in the media is the hundreds of letters my office and my clients have written that obtain access without a lawsuit.
The enforcement mechanism chosen by Congress and the State of California is effective, however draconian in some circumstances. It does work though. Unlike the building departments which frequently do not. If you do not like the law, propose something better to your legislator.
In the interim, feel free to continue to place this issue in the media. It renders the letters my clients write prior to litigation, rather receptive to the recipients, and on whole, makes litigation less likely.