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SACRAMENTO — A plan to give California business owners more leeway to comply with accessibility requirements for disabled patrons before being sued blew up in the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, leaving the bill’s author, Sen. Charles “Chuck” Poochigian, disappointed and fuming. Poochigian, the sole Republican candidate for the 2006 state attorney general race, had introduced Senate Bill 855, the third legislative attempt in as many years to give business owners some notice before being sued by disabled patrons for noncompliance with state and federal accessibility laws. Poochigian and business interests, including the California Chamber of Commerce, had expressed concerns that unscrupulous litigants and their attorneys were using accessibility laws to “shake down” small businesses who have not yet met ADA regulations passed 15 years ago. Poochigian’s bill, which had the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, had actually been rewritten in the Senate Judiciary Committee after private negotiations with Chairman Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana, and bill opponents. SB 855 was originally written to give property owners 120 days to fix violations of state and federal access laws before being hit with suits, unless the violation had resulted in an injury. The punitive and compensatory damages allowed only by California and two other states would have been subject only to violations remaining after the four-month wait period. Some small business owners say they are vulnerable to unscrupulous lawyers who file suit over trivial violations and then collect what can be sizable attorneys fee awards. But disabled activists testified that after more than a decade, businesses should have met rules that enable people with disabilities to eat at their restaurants, shop in their businesses or even use their bathrooms. As a measure of what Poochigian described as “good will,” he had agreed to gut the bill and replace its wording with so-called “intent” language, stating only that the bill would move out of committee to give both business interests and advocates for the disabled a framework to address their concerns. Two hours and some 50 witnesses into the bill’s public hearing, clear divisions between business supporters and disabled advocates were evident. By the time a final vote was taken, Poochigian had managed to offend committee member Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, who withdrew her support of the bill and joined Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, and Liz Figueroa, D-Fremont, in killing the measure outright. “I found [Poochigian's] comments offensive, and I am not going to vote for the bill,” Kuehl said. Just minutes before, Kuehl had thanked Poochigian for his compromise and said she would vote for the intent language “because it’s important to look at what the real problems are.” But that was before Poochigian, ignoring attempts by Dunn to soften his approach, castigated “a limited subset of people in the disabled community” who, he said, were out to “go after small mom and pop businesses,” unaware that they were not compliant with disability laws. “I am not unmindful or uncaring or lacking in compassion,” said Poochigian of the dozen men and women in wheelchairs who had opposed SB 855. But he asked those witnesses to “ponder and contemplate what is fair” in terms of suing business owners to comply with accessibility laws. Following the no vote, Poochigian noted that his attempts at good will had been ignored, and said he would bring the bill back in its original form for another vote. Other members of the business community, including the Civil Justice Association of California, have hinted that some sort of block to accessibility lawsuits might be included in a ballot measure next year. “These suits are being brought by private lawyers over things that haven’t harmed anyone,” said John Sullivan, CJAC’s president and a principal supporter of last year’s Prop 64, which limited the private right of attorney under the state’s Business and Professions Code [ SECTION SYMBOL] 17200. “That’s the same theme that the public focuses on with Prop 64 — and it’s the same kind of abuse.” While many of those supporting Poochigian’s measure said they represented small businesses, a leading lawyer for the state’s disabled community said his firm typically won’t even bother enforcing ADA regulations in mom and pop establishments. “We don’t bring those cases,” said Sid Wolinsky, litigation director of the Oakland-based Disability Rights Advocates. “We have hundreds of cases on our docket, and we don’t have a single case fairly designated as being against a mom and pop store.”

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