Managing Editor

Businesses have faced some tough issues lately with worker compensation and insurance costs skyrocketing, but business owners increasingly are grappling with Americans with Disabilities Act compliance — specifically trying to determine whether or not they've obeyed the law.

What many businesses throughout the state are finding is that they aren't fully compliant, leaving them open to code violations and making them targets.

Mimi Rasmussen was in the process of bringing her building up to ADA code when she was hit about three weeks ago with a lawsuit — for the second time — for being out of compliance.

The first lawsuit came in September 2003, shortly after she inherited the property from her father.

"Our restroom facility ramps going into the building were one quarter of an inch out of slope. Our handicap parking spaces had signs up, but there were no blue stripes," she said.

The most recent violations included a complaint that the pressure of the front door was too strong and the bar was too high.

"I do not disagree with trying to facilitate things but I do not agree with the fact that they can extort thousands of dollars from you," Rasmussen said.

Aaron Pederson was hit with a lawsuit a year and a half ago and was told his Greenhouse Caf/ didn't conform to ADA specifications. The $500 in needed modifications cost Pederson thousands.

"We had minimal offenses. Raise a bar, lower a bar, swing a door the other way. A soap dispenser was too high," Pederson said. "We ended up paying $14,000 just to have them go away."

Rasmussen and Pederson aren't alone. Numerous Solvang business owners have been hit with lawsuits. Many of the lawsuits are instigated by Jarek Molski, of Woodland Hills, who is also an attorney and uses a wheelchair. Pederson and Rasmussen were sued by another party.

It's estimated that Molski has about 200 lawsuits throughout the state.

Business owners who have been sued say the suits aren't about making the modifications, because the plaintiff often still sues for a sum of money even after the adjustments are brought up to compliance.

"We said it's done, and he said we still want the money," Pederson said.

Whether the lawsuits are borne of a crusader for the disabled or a predator trying to benefit from the situation, the root of the problem seems to be conflicting definitions about compliancy, property owners said.

"Even if we get the word out, there's still conflicting information," Pederson said.

Then there are the aspects some business owners don't realize have to be in compliance.

"Nobody knows what is correct, what is out of compliance. In my business, I would've never known there would be a problem with my bar," Rasmussen said.

After she inherited the property from her father in August 2003 she thought the property was grandfathered in and therefore exempt from more recent compliance laws. However, when she did some minor remodeling, it made the building subject to current regulations.

Juan Garcia, co-owner of Big Bopper Drive-In, said he received notice last month that a counter was too high, there was not enough room in the bathroom and there is no handicap parking.

"We had no notice to fix these things," he said. Like many others, Garcia said the first time he learned there was a problem was when they found out they were being sued.

Rasmussen was told her bar counter was too high. It's actually lower than a standard bar, she said.

"Our bar is 36 (inches), the standard is 42, but they requested it be dropped to 34," she said.

Often the price the business owners pay goes beyond just upgrades. If they choose to fight, they're subject to the plaintiff's attorney's fees if they lose, along with their own legal expenses and the cost to come up to compliance.

"It's very, very frustrating because I've gone through great effort to become ADA compliant and they can come back and sue you again," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said she still doesn't know the extent of how much it's going to cost her, explaining that she may have to pay for pain and suffering.

Many times, small business owners choose to settle, something Peterson said Molski is well aware of as he travels along the state on his campaign.

"I'm a lawyer. I know what it is. They ask for under $20,000 because people pay that," Pederson said.

But not every business owner can pay.

"We make only enough money to feed our families, pay bills and pay rent," Garcia said. "If they ask for too much money we may have to close."

Managing Editor Shelly Escalante-Cone can be reached at 688-5522, ext. 3, or by e-mail at scone@pulitzer.net.

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