| February 2013
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By Heather World
Getting a Handle on It: On Jan. 14, the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, represented by (l. to r.) attorney Ragunath Dindial, association president Robert Roddick, and Castro Computer owner Susan Walia, received an award at City Hall for its work in disseminating information about ADA issues. Photo by Ranny Viquez
Eyes on Accessibility: Many shops and businesses in Noe Valley, including this hair salon on Castro Street, are displaying signs of their good-faith efforts to implement state and federal disability laws. Photo by Pamela Gerard
The Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association was recognized last month for its efforts to enable small business owners to accommodate handicapped patrons without disabling their businesses.
Following a rash of letters and lawsuits last year against Noe Valley merchants for failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the association created a subcommittee to investigate the often-conflicting laws at the federal, state, and local level. (See “Rising Number of Disability Lawsuits,” March 2012 Voice.)
On Jan. 14, San Francisco’s Small Business Commission awarded the group a Certificate of Honor for its “exemplary commitment to education and assistance to businesses in Noe Valley on disability access requirements.” The certificate noted that the NVMPA was the only merchants association in San Francisco to have developed such a committee.
“They are doing terrific research and analysis as to the complications and the gaps in how these [ADA] laws relate, don’t relate, overlay, and conflict,” said Regina Dick-Endrizzi, executive director of San Francisco’s Office of Small Business, which recommended the NVMPA for the award.
Over the past two years, the committee—whose members wish to stay out of the spotlight—has been going door to door to businesses in Noe Valley and the Castro, sharing basic solutions to improve access, as well as resources for legal and financial help like tax credits for accessibility upgrades.
They also have helped shape recent state legislation around ADA compliance.
Sounding the Alarm
“The NVMPA reminds me of the colonists in New Hampshire,” said Ragunath Dindial, an attorney representing seven Noe Valley businesses that have been sued for noncompliance. (Dindial has helped the association committee as well.) “They have been the main merchants association to bring attention to City Hall and Sacramento.”
In September, California lawmakers moved to protect small businesses from some of the harsher penalties of the state’s access laws, halving fines for violations fixed within 30 days and all but eliminating additional fines for each day of non-compliance.
The bill funded the California Commission on Disability Access, which is tasked with digesting state law and spreading the word to small businesses. After lobbying by the NVMPA committee, business registrations will also now include language alerting applicants to the seriousness of the law.
“Because of them, it now is adopted statewide as opposed to just in our municipality,” Dick-Endrizzi said.
Around the same time, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed legislation moving some of the burden of compliance to building owners. Commercial landlords must make public restrooms and ground-floor entrances accessible before renting or amending a lease to a small-business tenant, and they must tell existing tenants that there may be potential violations of ADA laws on the premises. The legislation also allows for building permits for the work to be issued more quickly than before.
Businesses leasing turn-of-the-century San Francisco building space are stuck in a hard place, said Dindial.
They want to comply with the law but often can’t afford the major renovations that would be needed, said the Noe Valley resident, who became involved in the committee because the local businesses he patronizes were being affected.
“If the business goes out of business, the property owner is liable, and the property owner can then cross-sue the business owner to recoup costs,” he said. “Attorney fees can run up to $150K.”
That cost explains why many businesses fix what they can and choose to pay a settlement rather than go to court.
Process Begins with Letter
By early 2012, at least 23 local businesses had received letters from three disabled Santa Rosa residents pointing out violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some merchants were sued, some settled, and some made major changes to their space.
In accepting the award for the committee in January, Merchants Association President Robert Roddick said he recognized the need for the ADA. However, the law’s requirement that merchants pay the cost of litigation and penalties was forcing small merchants to close, he said.
“The community and the neighborhoods lose, and the disabled community loses as well,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Implementation we can afford, but not the penalties and punitive costs of litigation.”
Dindial urged businesses to be proactive. For example, they can order a Certified Acccess Specialist (CAS) program report that identifies potential violations of the law. Dindial encourages owners to put the report in their front window.
While the report is no defense against lawsuits, it can protect an owner from what critics decry as “serial plaintiffs” like the three Santa Rosa clients who are the source of all the Noe Valley letters.
“You’re not going to be an easy target,” Dindial said.
Some of the violations have simple solutions, like putting up signs that offer assistance. Bill Hoover, owner of Gallery of Jewels on 24th Street at Castro, bought a portable aluminum ramp that can be laid out when needed.
Some businesses, like the Valley Tavern, have spent thousands of dollars on bathroom and other upgrades to accommodate the disabled.
No matter what, Dindial said, don’t ignore any of the letters. Contact the NVMPA instead.
“People think they are ‘grandfathered in,’” and aren’t liable, he said. While the city may allow older buildings to operate without full disability access, state and federal laws do not.
The ADA subcommittee within the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association meets the first and third Thursday of every month at 9:30 a.m. at the Noe Valley/Sally Brunn Library, 451 Jersey St. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.