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Napa businesses hit with handicapped access lawsuits
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Napa businesses hit with handicapped access lawsuits

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Local small businesses have been hit with a flood of lawsuits from a Napa woman who says she is being discriminated against under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Nearly two dozen businesses including flower shops, restaurants, burger joints, liquor stores and automotive shops have been served with these lawsuits, 11 of them in September, leaving the owners frustrated, angry and scrambling to do whatever they can to minimize losses.

Most of the lawsuits, which have been filed in federal court, complain of parking lots that are out of compliance -- a few of them only lacking updated signage and fresh paint -- and narrow doors and aisles. 

“It’s just not fair,” said Randy Guerrieri, owner of the Copy Corner on Jefferson Street in Napa. Of course, business owners want to make their customers happy, but they shouldn’t have to go out of business to do so, he said.

The plaintiff, Pamela Koussa of Napa, says in the suits that she is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair for mobility. Multiple attempts to reach Koussa for comment failed. Her lawyers, based out of the Center for Disability Access, a law firm in San Diego, also did not respond to media inquiries. 

In her lawsuits, Koussa says that the business and property owners are intentionally discriminating against her.

The ADA protects people who have disabilities from discrimination and ensures them equal opportunities. Koussa is seeking compliance from businesses as well as $4,000 in minimum damages under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, California legislation that outlaws discrimination.

In Koussa’s lawsuit against Copy Corner's Guerrieri and property owner Edward Barwick, she claims that she visited the store in August to make some copies, but there were no compliant accessible handicap parking spaces available for people with disabilities.

In her lawsuit, Koussa said she believes that there used to be ADA-compliant parking spaces in the lot – an allegation that is included in nearly all of her lawsuits filed against Napa businesses in 2016. In addition to the lack of an accessible parking space, the lawsuit also claims that the Copy Corner door, which swings outward, is not in compliance either.

Guerrieri didn’t deny the allegations, but said that the lawsuits aren’t about access, they’re about money.

“It’s just a whole industry,” he said. “In 10 pops, she has $40,000 in a month.”

Napa isn't the only California city that has had a rash of ADA-related lawsuits. In July, the East Bay Times reported that California is "ground zero" for this type of litigation with an estimated 42 percent of all cases in the country filed in this state.

One business owner said that he would gladly offer to make free deliveries to Koussa's home or provide her with curbside service. That solution, though, doesn't necessarily address the access issue, said Wendy Kuehnl, director of communications and marketing at Abilities United, a Bay Area nonprofit that aims to provide lifelong support to individuals with disabilities.  

Although it's kind of businesses to offer help, most people want to be independent and not have to rely on others, Kuehnl said. It puts them in a vulnerable position. "I think that really separates people."

"It's all about freedom -- freedom of movement and accessibility," Kuehnl said. 

If someone uses a wheelchair and has to park in a parking spot that is not ADA-compliant, the standard space is going to be too narrow for them to be able to maneuver out of their vehicle, Kuehnl said. "You essentially become stuck in your car," she said. "You don’t have equal access."

"It really comes down to equal rights, just like any equal rights movement," she said. 

"Society makes a person disabled or handicapped. The person is fine the way they are," she said. "The barriers that we put up makes them disabled."

Guerrieri, who was just served with a lawsuit this week, said he anticipates having to make the business ADA- compliant since it is federal law. The biggest expense, he said, other than attorney’s fees and damages, will be expanding the entrance and installing an ADA-compliant door, which alone costs about $1,600.

“Luckily, this used to be a drive-through in the 40s,” he said of the old, oddly shape building that sits almost flush with the parking lot. “Becoming compliant for some businesses is a big expense.”

Guerrieri said that he won’t let anyone put him out of business, but the lawsuit will have a lot of unforeseen costs. “Not everybody running a business is wealthy,” he said.

“It gives you that feeling that you’ve lost control,” he said.

Business owners who were interviewed Friday said that they don’t mind making accommodations that enable people with physical disabilities to patronize their businesses. But making the accommodations isn’t always easy.

Peter Ibrahim of Lawler’s Liquors, a neighbor of Copy Corner, said that his own father, Jack, who died last year, had some disabilities and could barely walk. Making the building and parking lot ADA-compliant, though, was too much.

“We wanted to have a parking spot,” he said, but an ADA-compliant space would take up two out of three spaces in their small lot in front of their store.

It would mean no more parking in the front and no more deliveries, he said. “How can I run a business if I can’t have nobody park in front of the store?”

Instead of filing a lawsuit, why don’t Koussa’s lawyers with the Center for Disability Access come out and help him become compliant, Ibrahim said.

“This is a loophole in the law and these attorneys are profiting,” he said.

So, what is a business owner to do?

“A lot of guys settle outside,” said Aurelio Banda, owner of La Bella Terra, a decorative iron store on Soscol Avenue. The lawsuit against his business was filed Sept. 8 and alleged that not only was there no ADA-compliant space, but that the aisles in the store were too narrow.

“It’s intimidating at the beginning,” Banda said. Before he even was served with the lawsuit, Banda received a copy of it along with a letter from an attorney out of San Rafael offering to represent him.

“Most business people like me, we see an attorney letter, we want to settle,” he said. “We don’t know the law.”

The top 10 most common business violations, according to the California Commission on Disability Access, are:

-- the existing parking spaces are not compliant

-- signage in the parking lot is non-compliant

-- the parking lot does not contain the minimum number of accessible parking spaces,

--routes to and from the parking lot or public right-of-way are not accessible,

--van-accessible parking is non-compliant or non-existent,

--curb ramps or entrance ramps are non-compliant or non-existent,

--heights of surfaces such as counters and tables are non-compliant,

--access aisles or path of travel within building are not accessible,

--entry doors are not accessible or are missing accessibility signage

-- and bathrooms don't meet requirements.

And these requirements, including the wording of signs, change over time. As one business owner put it, “If you were in compliance five or six years ago, you’re out of compliance now.”

In addition to the 20 lawsuits against Napa businesses filed by Koussa in 2016 in the United States District Court Northern District of California, there are rumors floating around in the business community of other businesses that may be next.

According to several business owners, the whole thing starts with either a phone call from someone asking about access at the business or someone coming by taking photos of the business and parking lot.

“They want to scare you off first, so you call the lawyer right away,” Banda said.

Banda said that before the lawsuit, he wasn’t even aware of the list of required compliances.

“We just got another barrier we have to deal with – just another obstacle” to running a successful small business, Banda said. 

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.

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