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Chambers of commerce to educate businesses on ADA, lawsuit abuse

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A recent wave of lawsuit threats in Alpine over compliance with the American Disabilities Act have motivated chambers across the county to protect and educate their member businesses.

The outrage ignited when Theodore Pinnock, a disabled lawyer, allegedly sent notices to 30 Alpine businesses, informing them that their place of business did not accommodate disabled customers and was in violation of state and federal law. Pinnock asked each business for $10,500 to settle, according to Bill Fischbeck of Fischbeck and Oberndorfer LLC. Last November, Pinnock reportedly threatened 67 Julian business owners with legal action.

The lawsuits have encouraged educational workshops, a push for legislation reform, and alliance among lawyers and legislators sympathetic to small businesses.

"We want to see our members in compliance with ADA regulations. At the same time, they don't need to suffer the financial cost of going through a lawsuit for something they were unaware of," said Terry Saverson, president and CEO of the East County Chamber of Commerce.

The East County Chamber, which covers the cities of La Mesa and El Cajon, will collaborate with U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter's office to push for new legislation regarding the act. The proposed bill would require a 90-day notification to noncompliant businesses before any party could sue that business.

The East County Chamber has held two workshops in the past year on the issue.

The Poway chamber will take a multipronged approach to the issue, educating the community with a Wake Up to Small Business event and researching which legislators support small businesses in the lawsuits. The chamber is also planning a forum.

"We're looking at this certainly from all aspects. We have to be proactive," said Toni Kraft, president and CEO of the Poway chamber.

David Peters, CEO and general counsel of Lawyers Against Lawsuit Abuse, thinks the reason businesses are vulnerable to these lawsuits is the lack of information that goes out to businesses.

"I think the California Legislature should be ashamed," he said. "Even 15 years after the law passed, there is no Web site" on how to comply with the ADA.

Peters also believes that confusion over laws and contradictions between the federal ADA and the California Civil Right Act make it virtually impossible to be 100 percent compliant.

According to Peters, there have been 3,500 ADA lawsuits to date in San Diego County.

Fallbrook was affected 12 months ago, with eight to 12 businesses targeted for poor ADA compliance. Pinnock requested $5,000 as a settlement, according to Executive Director Bob Leonard.

Leonard sees noncompliance as a fault of communication. The implications of the law were not made clear to business owners, and communication between builders and business owners was not always clear.

"It was a law that only came into play when you made a major modification to your business," Leonard said. "Local builders don't enforce, don't inspect (buildings for ADA compliance). It makes it very difficult for the common business person."

Other chambers aren't too threatened by the lawsuits.

In cities like Carlsbad, where most buildings are relatively new and do not rise above two stories, chamber members feel less vulnerable to lawsuits.

"We're concerned, (but) we're not as big a target because of the zoning codes we have," said Ted Owen, president and CEO of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce.

"We haven't had any real threats," said Jim Baumann, president and CEO of the Vista Chamber of Commerce, "we're just trying to make sure people are aware of it."

Baumann added, "most places, even if they have a few violations, can fix it for a relatively low cost."

Send your comments, thoughts or suggestions to tiffany.stecker@sddt.com

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