Another Price client, a lawyer named Scott Johnson, who is quadriplegic, is perhaps the most notorious of the serial litigants. This is partly because of the volume of his cases – on occasion he has filed more than a dozen lawsuits in a single day – and partly because he has encountered legal problems himself, including a federal indictment for non-payment of taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars he has earned in recent years through ADA regulations. (Johnson has pleaded not guilty – his lawyer in this case, Malcolm Segal, maintains that Johnson’s settlement money was tax-exempt – and the case is pending trial.)
Johnson’s former paralegals said he was asking them to drive around town looking for violations so Johnson can file a complaint. Sometimes, according to paralegals, he accompanied them, but rarely left the car. (Price said Johnson was always present when potential violations were identified.) In any given year, Johnson sues 300 to 400 in California; he deposited thousands of them during his career. A handful of businesses shut down for good as a result of lawsuits: a burger restaurant, a deli, a beloved pool hall. “As for Scott Johnson, he got nothing from me but a closed business,” Mike Murphy, the owner of the shuttered Jointed Cue pool hall, told me. “What’s heartbreaking is that this is a staple in the community. It is a historic place. And it’s gone because of this trial.
Price noted that closing a business after a lawsuit “does not imply a causal link.” He said he and his colleagues viewed their clients as helping enforce an important law. “They are testers,” Price told me. “They make sure California is compliant. They put themselves and their time on the line to gain access. In 2007, in response to a lawsuit alleging vexatious disability litigation, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion making the same point: “To keep the ADA on its promise to ‘equality of access for people with disabilities, it may be necessary and desirable for those engaged to initiate serial lawsuits to advance the time when public housing will be ADA compliant ”
Once Dytch pursued Top Hatters, Vu thought maybe the restaurant was over. But she rallied, borrowing a double-digit interest rate loan, while also borrowing from relatives, to keep the business afloat and pay a lawyer.
She researched Dytch and learned that it was a serial file: “He did this for a living,” she concluded. She was committed to making her restaurant accessible to all guests, she said, but in her eyes, Dytch’s trial was a ploy for money. The timing, during a catastrophic pandemic, didn’t help. Some nights Vu only had six orders, but it took about 50 to break even. “We basically kept it open and operational so that our workers had jobs,” she told me. Despite the generosity she felt from a group of patrons who have remained loyal to the restaurant – one even donated $ 200 from her Stimulus Check to Top Hatters – she said. sank deeper and deeper into debt and became a misanthropist. “For a while there,” she told me, “I just looked at everyone like, ‘You’re going to sue me. You are there to have me, you know?
In many accessibility lawsuits, ADA inspectors are hired to examine properties and see where they fall short. According to Candice Lui, an inspector who visited Top Hatters, the counter that Dytch had complained about was in fact compliant. Recommended him a few other changes, however, to ensure accessibility: moving a chair and cabinet from the bathroom; use stickers to indicate which tables were accessible; install a locking mechanism to prevent the door from accidentally closing during business hours. (Dytch said, “I don’t think the list of recommended changes adequately represents the situation, but confidentiality prevents me from providing a more complete account.”)
To some extent, Vu felt justified. “But my lawyer said it’s cheaper and faster to just settle and do what they say than fight it,” she told me. In September 2020, the parties came to an agreement: Top Hatters would pay a certain amount and fix the issues the inspector found. The terms of the settlement prevent both parties from disclosing the amount. It was less than the $ 75,000 originally demanded by Dytch, but large enough that Vu remembered thinking, Well here’s our tuition money. (Her son was going to college.)