A linchpin of Castro Street, Ava's Downtown Market & Deli has weathered fierce competition, rising costs and parking troubles. Now the grocery store's latest threat has to do with the dimensions of its displays and chairs.
A new civil lawsuit is demanding payment from Ava's owners and their partners for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The complaint mirrors other ADA suits filed against small shops and cafes across California that have gained a reputation among business owners for being tantamount to a shakedown.
The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of Ronny-Marie Wilson, a frequent ADA plaintiff, against the owners of Ava's grocery store, the Omelette House that occupies space inside it and the owner of its building at 340 Castro St. The lawsuit complaint cites inadequate "knee and toe clearances" at tables near the Omelette House dining area and aisles in the grocery store that were wheelchair-inaccessible due to the store's inventory displays. Each violation can result in up to $4,000 in damages in court; however, the lawsuit leaves the possibility open for more violations to be identified.
Ava's co-owner Juan Origel confirmed the lawsuit, but declined to comment on the advice of his attorney.
The lawyer and firm behind the lawsuit -- Tanya Moore of the San Jose-based Mission Law Firm -- has reportedly filed hundreds of similar suits across the state, including several in Mountain View. These cases are described by opponents as cookie-cutter lawsuits that seize on small technical infractions such as faded parking lines and sign heights to demand large settlements. Many defendants are inclined to quickly settle for a lesser sum rather than risk a large court judgment.
Moore said that her legal actions are about providing equal access for the disabled. Businesses have had 27 years to comply with the ADA requirements, but many shop owners decide to perform mandated upgrades only when they're staring at a lawsuit, she wrote.
"As long as businesses can direct the narrative away from their illegal behavior and vilify the person with a disability, the promise of the ADA will remain unfulfilled," she wrote in an email. "The fact is businesses don't want to comply with the law."
An example of how the case against Ava's might proceed may be found in what happened to Blossom True Value Hardware on El Camino Real.
Owners Michele Bernal and her husband Paul Zeitman had thought they had gone above and beyond the rules by spending $50,000 to upgrade their restroom to ensure it was wheelchair-accessible.
But in 2013, their store was hit by a lawsuit from Moore's firm. The lawsuit alleged violations including poorly marked parking lines, asphalt cracks and displays blocking the aisles. All of these problems allegedly made it difficult for Moore's wheelchair-bound client to move through the store.
In the end, Bernal and Zeitman decided to settle the case for $20,000. Luckily, that sum was covered by their insurance, but they still had to pay about $5,000 in hikes to their premium. Bernal remains bitter about the episode.
"It's legal graft; it's really amazing that they can do this," Bernal said. "It's easier for them to go after the little guys because we don't have attorneys on call. If they go after the big chains, they have the money and attorneys to fight this."
Around the same time, Moore's firm reportedly filed similar lawsuits against many neighboring businesses, including the El Paso Cafe, Mountain View Surplus and a Baskin-Robbins franchise owned by City Councilman John McAlister.
Asked about the incident, McAlister said the actual fixes in his store were minor. He had to add a sidewalk ramp and move some tables and equipment for easier maneuverability, which altogether cost about $400. But the legal squabble ended up costing him about $18,000 between the ADA specialists and attorneys, he said.
"We want to make sure everyone has equal access and that things are fair, but when these guys come in they're not doing things for the good of the disabled," he said. "It's going after the small guys, and that's really troubling."
McAlister said he didn't have any great advice to give the Ava's owners. Fighting the case in court would likely fail, he said. The best recourse might be to settle the case as quickly as possible, he said.
Political pressure is building to amend federal law to put new restrictions on ADA lawsuits. U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-14) is co-sponsoring a bill that would give businesses a 120-day-notice period to correct ADA violations before a lawsuit could commence. Julie Griffiths, an advocate with the California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said the bill has bipartisan support and she expects it to pass.
By her count, Griffiths said, there have been nearly 3,000 questionable ADA lawsuits filed against small businesses just in California. Nearly all the suits have the same cluster of plaintiffs and law firms behind them.
"There's been some legitimate suits where people have been denied access, but you have to swim through 250 others before you find one of those," she said.