Chalard Jiraceevee, the owner of Siam Motors in Burbank, received some shocking news in June.
He was being sued.
“They served me the papers, saying I need handicap parking, that the bathroom was too small for a person in a wheelchair, the toilet is too low, the sink is too small — a lot of stuff,” Jiraceevee said of the allegations in the lawsuit.
The only bathroom at his business is for employees, Jiraceevee said, and his company doesn’t advertise.
But it was too late. Jiraceevee had just become part of a growing group of defendants sued by James Cohan. This year alone, Cohan has brought more than 70 cases against Burbank and Glendale businesses alleging they are not complying with disabled access laws, court documents show.
Under California law, at least $4,000 in compensation is allowed for each violation. Whereas federal law only requires property owners to fix violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, California is among a handful of states that allow for damages to be collected. Plaintiffs are not required to themselves be disabled, but Cohan has previously claimed such a status.
And that puts small business owners, like those targeted in Cohan’s lawsuits, at particular risk of having to shell out thousands of dollars on top of the cost of the actual construction.
According to James Link, an attorney who has successfully defended several Cohan-related cases, the lawsuits filed against Burbank business owners are just the latest in series of similar legal efforts.
Cohan is either involved in, or has filed, 94 lawsuits claiming disabled access violations through Aug. 8, including the 70 in the Burbank and Glendale areas, Link said.
When at least 20 pharmacies in Burbank and Glendale were being targeted in 2007, Link said he ended up with three of them because the same family owned all three properties.
“They were all by same guy, and I thought, ‘How many more are there?’ Bells and whistles obviously went off,” Link said.
Business owners who gathered Thursday night at a Burbank bar shared similar stories about Cohan.
Business owners said Cohan came in, made a small purchase and then asked to use the restroom.
Most business owners who saw Cohan remembered him because he did the “bathroom dance” — crossing his legs while bouncing up and down and saying he urgently needs to use the bathroom.
A few weeks later, they said they were named in a lawsuit for not complying with ADA guidelines.
Some business owners, such as Jiraceevee, were able to get the cases dismissed quickly. His case was dropped Aug. 6 with Link’s assistance.
City officials told him a handicap parking space was not required for his business. And Link, his attorney, said because the bathroom was only for employees, it did not have to be accessible for the public.
Cohan’s detractors say his claims of being disabled remain suspect.
A Los Angeles Daily News photo published in 2007 shows him walking up a trail with his two dogs. And a disgruntled defendant went so far as to videotape him during a recent hike.
In an interview, Cohan declined to discuss the issue.
“It doesn’t matter if I have a disability or not,” he said. “I don’t make money on these things.”
He said the matter is clear. Businesses remain in violation of the disabled access laws years after they were put on the books.
“It’s straightforward — they are not in compliance with ADA laws. There is no mystery,” Cohan said. “The places I have visited or involved with somehow are in violation and they have had 20 years to do it and they haven’t done it.”
Link said it amounts to frivolous litigation and Cohan could face fines. If his attorneys were found to be culpable, they could be sanctioned, Link added.
Russell Handy, an attorney at the Center for Disability Access, said in an email that his firm broke ties with Cohan several weeks ago after signing on with him in April. He declined to discuss why.
“What I can say is that my firm first started representing Mr. Cohan in April of this year,” Handy said. “We discontinued that representation a few weeks ago and dismissed all of the cases where we were attorneys of record. We did not settle or try any Cohan case. We do not currently represent Mr. Cohan.”
Cohan currently is serving five years of probation after he was found guilty April 25 of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition. Part of his probation includes two years of house arrest.
Cohan’s probation officer was not immediately available for comment and calls to a department spokesman were not returned.
Last week, a forum was held near Burbank City Hall in response to inquiries from several businesses about ADA regulations and possible lawsuits, said John Cheng, an official with the city’s Community Development Department.
Cheng said it is the first forum of its kind that the city has sponsored.
Because the lawsuits are filed by a private person against a property or business owner, they are private legal matters, Cheng said.
“What the city can do, and this is what we are doing, is to reach out to the business community to inform them of the regulations and assist them on how to avoid an ADA lawsuit in the future,” Cheng said.
“Any judge that takes a look at this should be throwing it out of court, as far as I’m concerned,” said Councilman Gary Bric.
In the meantime, Link said he would continue to work to have the cases against his handful of clients dismissed while sharing his research on Cohan with other defendants, even if he doesn’t represent them.
“It can’t continue, that’s why attorneys are dismissing,” Link said. “Would you want to go to trial if I had this evidence?”
Staff writers Kelly Corrigan and Mark Kellam contributed to this report.