Scott Johnson, ADA attorney, makes surprise stop at Auburn businesses
When prominent attorney Scott Johnson parked his van outside Studio Fifty5 hair salon, it took owner Donna Brooks by surprise. Brooks feared he might be seeking to find more infractions for an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit.
Instead, she received some good news from her attorney.
The court-ordered inspection Friday by Johnson and his consultants found that the salon’s previously non-compliant restroom had been brought up to code, calming Brooks’ fears that she would have to pay thousands in a settlement, she said.
“I’m very grateful that this is over,” Brooks said. “It has been a little thing – no, a big thing – that has been hanging over my head for awhile and I didn’t have the money to pay him. … Very possibly, we would have to close the salon.”
Her salon, along with Pistol Pete’s Brew & Cue and the Liquor Outlet in the plaza at the corner of Lincoln Way and Harrison Avenue in Auburn, has been embroiled in an ADA lawsuit filed by the Carmichael attorney a couple years ago.
Johnson arrived around noon with two consultants, and he watched as measurements and photographs were taken – evaluating slopes, counter height, handicap parking and more at the three businesses. Michael Welch, the attorney representing the businesses in the case, said it’s a routine part of discovery in a lawsuit.
When Johnson personally shows up – which is atypical – it draws added attention, Welch said. Johnson has long been in the spotlight for filing hundreds of ADA lawsuits, including dozens in the Auburn area, but in October he became the subject of a lawsuit himself.
He is being sued by four former employees of his Disabled Access Prevents Injury office for allegations including sexual harassment and fraud. Johnson declined to comment on that when it was initially reported.
Johnson’s former workers allege in the lawsuit that he never entered a majority of the businesses that his firm has sued for ADA non-compliance, despite his claims to the contrary, and that he instead had his employees enter the businesses “under a ruse,” according to court documents.
“Everyone wants to talk to Scott Johnson now, because there’s a lot of people really pissed off and some people went out of business in order to avoid paying him, or to pay him they really went into deep (trouble),” Welch said. “And a lot of them want to get their money back if they were defrauded.”
Some of the claims in the lawsuit against Johnson align with accounts from Brooks and plaza owner Pete Aroz Sr., who say Johnson never entered the businesses there that he is suing. Aroz, who owns and operates Pistol Pete’s and the Liquor Outlet, said he has filed a counter-lawsuit against Johnson that is set to go to court in April 2014.
“My attorney seemed to think they delayed it as long as they could because the judges want to find out what his outcome is going to be in his employees’ suit against him,” he said. “We intend to sue him for a large amount of money if it gets to that far.”
He told Brooks he would cover any costs related to Johnson’s lawsuit against businesses in the plaza. Aroz said Johnson was seeking a total settlement of about $7,000.
“He’s probably trying to take care of as much as he can before this all happens, because I really think he’s going to go out of business,” Aroz said. “And there are some laws enacted that are going to alleviate the situation, but it’s not going to end it. … What he and all these other attorneys are doing is fraud, conspiracy and embezzlement, and I mean it’s just not right.
“And he’s picking on the small business owners that typically can’t afford to hire the $10,000 attorney, they’ll just say, ‘We’ll give him the four or five thousand dollars and get him off our back.’”
Johnson said Friday he personally attended to “oversee the inspection,” and said the inspection evaluated the salon’s entrance and counter height at the cash register, as well as some aspects of Pistol Pete’s, but declined to comment further.
A message left by the Journal requesting further comment and response at the phone number listed on Johnson’s state bar association page was not returned Friday.
Aroz said Welch told him that the inspection had gone positively for the plaza businesses.
Brooks said before Johnson’s lawsuit, she had been letting customers use the salon’s bathroom, and she suspects Johnson sent an able-bodied associate to enter it and take photographs to use in the case against her.
“That would be the only way,” said Brooks, who described the salon’s clientele as “working women” and seniors. “I mean, a quadriplegic in a wheel chair, I would remember that that person came in and used the bathroom. He had never come in here and used the restroom.”
Aroz said the picture of the salon bathroom was taken at an angle that would have been impossible from a wheelchair.
“From what I understand one of these gals came in … and pleaded they needed to use the bathroom for an emergency, and out of just respect they let this person who was not in a wheelchair go in,” he said. “And they took a picture of it.”
To remedy the infraction, the salon posted a sign in the window that says “Sorry, no public restrooms.” Several of the plaza businesses have similar signs posted, and Liquor Outlet has a notice displayed on its storefront citing ongoing ADA compliance work.
Johnson’s complaints also encompassed accessibility to bathrooms at Pistol Pete’s and the party store, Aroz said. He said there is an ADA compliant restroom available to Pistol Pete’s customers, but it is located in an adjacent building.
Work on the Pistol Pete’s bathrooms is ongoing, and Liquor Outlet was redesigned to be more accessible, Aroz said. Handicap parking spaces also were brought up to code, he said.
Much of the plaza had been built well before the 1990s when many of the current ADA standards started to take effect, Aroz said.
He estimates he spent about $3,000 to address entrance and signage issues stemming from the lawsuit, and that’s not including the $250-an-hour compliance consultant he had to hire.
“I don’t like his practices if he’s deceiving and not doing them according to the law,” Brooks said of Johnson. “But I am in total respect of people that have disabilities. We have a lot of disabled clients that we take very good care of, and I mean I had some of them that said they would go to court for me.”
Jon Schultz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews