Written by Michael S. Dorsi
Leap, a new comfortable-looking private bus service in San Francisco, recently came under scrutiny for removing wheelchair accessibility equipment from buses it purchased and retrofitted. Chris Pangilinan, a former San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency engineer, recently filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging that Leap violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.
If anything, it is surprising that Leap has not already been sued. Hotel and restaurant owners in California are often familiar with so-called “serial plaintiffs who bring hundreds— sometimes thousands — of disability access lawsuits. They keep doing so because the law favors their cases.
A person harmed by a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act may sue under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. Successful plaintiffs are awarded damages of triple the harm suffered, no less than $4000, plus mandatory attorneys’ fees. Attorneys’ fees are only available to plaintiffs; defendants may not recover their fees even if they win a defense verdict. The damages and fees rules create a strong incentive for defendants to quickly settle their cases and remedy any conditions that do not conform to ADA rules.
California State Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, after whom the Unruh Civil Rights Act is named, with Willie Brown, who would go on to serve as Assembly Speaker after Unruh’s retirement.
The Unruh Civil Rights Act does require that the plaintiff be directly harmed. Mr. Pangilinan, who now works in New York, may not be directly harmed, but there are likely other potential plaintiffs. Leap may have defenses, but defending an Unruh Civil Rights Act case is difficult, costly, and risky.
*Mr. Dorsi is an attorney with Ad Astra Law Group, who has represented plaintiffs and defendants in fee-shifting litigation under public interest statutes, including disability access litigation the Unruh Civil Rights Act.
 Cal. Civil Code § 51(f).
 Cal. Civil Code § 52(a).
 Turner v. Association of American Medical Colleges, 193 Cal.App. 4th 1047, 1060 (2011).
 Surrey v. TrueBeginnings, LLC, 168 Cal. App. 4th 414, 420 (2008).