Local business owners and advocates are planning to gather in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse Friday morning to protest Eureka attorney Jason Singleton, who they claim is unfairly targeting businesses for financial gain using Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits.
James Blount, a retired Arcata man, is organizing the protest, set to take place from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
”I got tired of sitting back and watching it all happen,” Blount said.
A federal court records search shows that Singleton has filed 259 federal lawsuits relating to ADA violations since 2005, with 23 cases filed in 2013. Many of these lawsuits have been directed at Humboldt County businesses, including Village Pantry, the Minor Theatre Corp., Cher-Ae Heights Casino, Cafe Waterfront, Barnes Arcata Family Drug, McKinleyville's Central Station bar, Six Rivers Brewery and Arctic Circle.
Blount decided to arrange a protest after Porter Street Barbeque in Arcata closed its doors in November after settling a lawsuit with Singleton.
Scott Seelye, owner of Porter Street Barbeque in Eureka, was sued by a plaintiff represented by Singleton in September for multiple ADA violations at his Arcata restaurant. After settling in mid-November to avoid further court costs, Feelye said that he could not afford to pay the money needed make the building compliant. As a result, he shut down the location.
Seelye said that he only received a handwritten letter with no contact info before being handed a court summons shortly after.
”There was no phone number on the letter, no way to contact them,” Seelye said. “If someone has a specific problem, why would I not want to make it right? Our first issue in mind is customer service.”
While Seelye does agree that buildings should be made compliant with the law, he also said that business owners should be able to address the violations -- especially if they are minor -- without having to go straight to the courtroom.
”I think this is not about ADA compliance,” Seelye said. “I think this is about a specific lawyer taking advantage of local business people.”
Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville was also sued in 2007 for multiple violations by a woman represented by Singleton, according to co-owner Meredith Maier. Maier also claimed the majority of the violations were minor, such as improper signage and a toilet paper dispenser being a couple inches too far from the toilet. Despite hiring an engineer to fix many of these violations, Maier said she was still given a court summons 90 days after receiving the complaint.
”They didn't care we were making those changes and we were served with a lawsuit,” Maier said. “Nowhere in his settlement was there any requirement that we had to make any changes at all.”
Though they did not have to close their doors after spending nearly $80,000 on fines and court fees, Maier said they took a heavy financial blow.
”We spent tens of thousands of dollars on charges when they sued,” Maier said. “I certainly couldn't go through that again and keep our doors open.”
Paul Bareis, a real estate owner of the building housing Brick and Fire in Eureka, is one of the recent targets of a Singleton lawsuit. Bareis said that while he does not entirely agree with the way the law is being enforced, he also believes that the problem goes beyond one attorney.
”I don't blame people for being upset, but it's not the attorney's fault,” Bareis said. “It's the legislature. The attorneys don't write the law, it's the people we vote for.”
Bareis said that the main issue is businesses go through the process of getting several permits, but are never notified if their building is compliant with the ADA.
”I don't think any business owner is out there who wouldn't want to address these issues,” Bareis said. “The fact that they are finding out through these lawsuits is something the state should address. It makes you wonder why there isn't a better system of notification.”
Multiple attempts to reach Singleton by phone were not answered by deadline.
Talk of Singleton made its way to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. During the meeting, the board directed staff to include language addressing abuse of ADA lawsuits in the 2014 State and Federal Platform for Humboldt County.
”I'm surprised we didn't have that in there sooner,” 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass said during the meeting. “There are people being put out of business because some attorneys are feathering their pockets. It feels like a scam.”
Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said that this is being done to “protect the intent” of the Americans with Disabilities Act and not to weaken it.
Seelye encourages other business owners and members of the public to join in the protest on Friday.
”Show up to our protest and bring your signs,” Seelye said. “We will be there every Friday until we get some satisfaction.”
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Will_S_Houston