PITTSBURG -- With several local small businesses recently hit by lawsuits alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the chamber of commerce held a public policy meeting recently to educate its members about the ins and outs of the law.
In addition to teaching compliance requirements, the meeting's speakers discussed the widespread practice of filing what are often termed as "frivolous" lawsuits with the aim of recouping legal fees from business owners.
"I think everyone wants to comply and make their business accessible to the handicapped. I don't think that's an issue at all," said Brad Nail, a member of the chamber's board of directors and chairman of its public policy committee.
"It's a fine line between making your business accessible but also being run out of business because somebody is finding minute issues that need to be dealt with," Nail said.
The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in areas of employment, all levels of government, public and commercial spaces, transportation and telecommunications.
Bassam Altwal, a certified access specialist whose company, CalAccessibility, provides ADA-compliance consultations, told the chamber group that California is one of just two states that award monetary compensation to plaintiffs in ADA lawsuits. Most other states instead require business owners to put money toward fixing the violations.
According to Altwal, 18 percent of the country's population was considered disabled in 2012, representing $200 billion in annual discretionary spending.
"In addition to being the law, accommodating (the disabled) makes business sense," he said.
The most common violations, he said, are found in doorways, aisles or corridors, parking spaces, ramps or handrails and restrooms.
While it's the frivolous lawsuits that draw most business owners' ire, Altwal said the majority of ADA litigation is justified, because the law is "very black and white."
For example, the ADA requires that doorways be at least 32 inches wide to allow a wheelchair to pass through. If a business's doorway measures any less than that, it would be out of compliance.
That same clear-cut standard applies to myriad fixtures or settings in a given building -- so many that it is practically impossible to be 100 percent compliant, Altwal said, and most business owners are unaware of most standards.
But ignorance of the law is not a defense against legal action, he told the crowd Wednesday, and complying with ADA standards needs to be seen as a "continuous obligation."
"Ignoring the problem is not a solution," Altwal said. "In my opinion, the best solution is to be as compliant as possible."
Among the more than dozen business owners and stakeholders who attended the meeting, several said they had been served with ADA lawsuits against their businesses.
Without commenting on the validity of the lawsuits, they said they would have eagerly fixed any violations had they been made aware of them before legal actions were taken.
One longtime Antioch restaurant owner who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing legal action, said he was shocked to be served with a lawsuit June 23 by someone claiming access problems in his small eatery.
"My issue is, he never gave me a chance to fix the problem," the restaurateur said. "If he'd given me a chance to fix the issue, I would have fixed it, no problem. I never want to discriminate against anybody."
The next step for the chamber, Nail said, is to bring members' concerns about ADA loopholes relating to frivolous lawsuits to the California Chamber of Commerce and to East Contra Costa's representatives on the state level.
"It's a very common situation, and not only in Pittsburg, but go to any city in California, and you could find the same situation," Nail said.
There may already be some traction for those efforts.
Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, whose district includes the Central Valley communities of Manteca and Ripon, has been spearheading an effort to close loopholes in California's regulations ever since 35 ADA lawsuits were filed in Manteca by the same attorney over the course of three days.
"We need another legislative solution to protect these businesses, which ultimately means protecting jobs," Olsen said.