SACRAMENTO – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein says if California lawmakers don’t act to clamp down on “predatory” disability access lawsuits she may author federal legislation to do just that.

In a March 8 letter to fellow Democrat and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Feinstein accused plaintiffs lawyers of coercing business owners into paying five-figure settlements by threatening potentially costlier lawsuits targeting minor violations under the state’s access and civil rights laws.

“It appears these suits and demand letters are driven by a unique California law that, unlike the federal [Americans with Disabilities Act], permits the recovery of damages for noncompliance,” Feinstein wrote. “As a result, I respectfully ask that you use your leadership position in the California State Senate to help advance legislation that will address this problem.”

Feinstein’s letter marks a significant departure from typical access litigation politics in California, where majority Democrats have traditionally voted to maintain the rights of disabled patrons to sue while Republicans have tried, unsuccessfully, to limit such lawsuits.

“To have a national leader from the Democratic Party come out and say this is a major problem and it needs to be fixed is significant,” said Larry Venus, press secretary for state Senator Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga.

Dutton is among a half-dozen state legislators who have introduced bills in this election year aimed at curbing disability lawsuits by giving property owners time to fix violations before they can be sued. In her letter, Feinstein mentions Dutton’s bill although she stops short of endorsing it. Her letter refers to 22 businesses that were sued in Redlands — in Dutton’s Senate district — by the same attorney for failing to post proper handicapped parking signs.

A Steinberg spokeswoman said the state Senate leader is still reviewing Feinstein’s letter and has not responded. Asked earlier this year about the flurry of litigation-limiting bills introduced, Steinberg said he did not see them advancing. He instead offered his support for current state law, enacted in 2008, that provides some legal protection for owners who have their businesses inspected by so-called certified access specialists.

Inspected properties can still be targeted for access violations. But owners with inspection certificates can seek a 90-day stay of litigation and an evaluation conference designed to resolve claims quickly.

The law was the product of more than two years of negotiations among lawmakers, business groups and consumer attorneys. It has not proven a panacea. One frequent plaintiff in the Sacramento region actually filed more access lawsuits in the year after the law was passed than he had in each of the previous three years, according to records kept by a business defense attorney.

Finding enough certified inspectors has also been a problem, although their ranks have increased from just 167 in late 2009 to 405 today, according to the Division of the State Architect.

A spokeswoman for Disability Rights California said she was unaware of Feinstein’s letter and declined to comment immediately.

“I am eager for resolution to be reached on this matter at the state level,” Feinstein’s letter concludes. “However, I will consider introducing legislation in the U.S. Senate if this problem cannot be solved by the California state Legislature.”