News Column

Yuba City Pays Man Not to File Any Disability Suits

Oct. 13, 2012

Richard Chang, The Sacramento Bee

Oct. 13--George Louie is a West Sacramento man who has sued hundreds of Northern California cities and businesses for failing to comply with the federal Americans with Disability Act.

This week, Yuba City announced it has agreed to pay Louie $15,000 to leave the city and its businesses alone for good.

"He's agreed not to file ADA lawsuits in our city, period," said Darin Gale, Yuba City's economic development manager. "There's no timetable, it's forever."

The agreement, which Yuba City officials say is the first of its kind, has many business owners in the Sutter County town drawing a sigh of relief.

Louie's lawsuits targeting local governments and small-business owners have usually ended in out-of-court settlements in his favor, because the cases are expensive to fight, said Cris Vaughan, a Loomis attorney who has defended dozens of clients against Louie's lawsuits.

Critics have called the suits "frivolous," alleging that they are motivated by financial gain.

"The going rate is $4,000 a case (to settle). These are extortion lawsuits," said Yuba City property manager Bill Meagher, who had two tenants sued by Louie.

The violations against the tenants were minor, Meagher said, having to do with a missing handicap parking sign, which he said was stolen off the pole.

The Bee was unable to reach Louie by phone Friday and his attorney, Keith Cable of the Cable Gallagher law firm in Folsom, did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

Louie told the (Marysville) Appeal-Democrat that racial slurs against his family were the catalyst for the string of lawsuits he filed in Yuba City. "I hold grudges. I go after people who do things to me," he told the newspaper in May 2011. "I'm coming after everybody."

In June 2011, a Contra Costa Superior Court judge placed Louie on a state list of "vexatious litigants," which bars him from filing lawsuits in California courts. But he is still free to file in federal court.

The propensity of some to use the ADA in court was the target of bipartisan legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month.

SB 1186, co-authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, prohibits attorneys from writing so-called "demand letters" that ask for money in exchange for not filing suit. The bill also reduces the monetary damages that can be awarded for each violation.

But Vaughan, the Loomis attorney, said the new law doesn't bar Louie or others from initiating ADA lawsuits.

"It doesn't stop them, but it may discourage them," he said.

Yuba City's settlement with Louie doesn't mean businesses there are off the hook for complying with ADA regulations, Gale said. He noted that Yuba City spends $300,000 each year to upgrade sidewalks and other public facilities to make them accessible for disabled people.

"We understand the need to educate our businesses about ADA," Gale said, citing the education workshops conducted by the city.

The settlement, to be paid out of an insurance fund, was unanimously approved by the City Council in a closed door meeting Oct. 2.

Attorneys were quick to point out that the agreement is exclusive to Louie and that there are dozens of other people who file similar ADA lawsuits across the state.

"There needs to be protections in place for businesses that allow opportunities to correct violations before litigation," said Steven Bovarnick, a San Francisco lawyer who has successfully fought ADA cases.

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(c)2012 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services



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