Ford's Burgers Closes after ADA Suit Filed

Ford's Burgers c.2011

Ford’s Burgers, a classic burger joint on Sutterville Rd. across from Land Park, closed yesterday after a more then half a century in business. The business had been struggling for a while but a lawsuit from a serial ADA litigant and quadriplegic, Carmichael attorney Scott N. Johnson was the straw the broke the camel’s back. (Coverage from New10)

Remembering Ford’s

Ford’s was close to where I work, and actually right on my commute. I didn’t go there often, though if I had known they were closing I would have made a special effort to get a last burger. As many of the reports point out, the food was anything but cheap, and the burgers while award winning, where in my opinion, not the best. (I never could convince them to melt the cheese on the patty)The one strong connection I did have to Ford’s was with Christmas for All.

Christmas for All is one of the oldest outreach programs at All Saints. The church provides food “baskets” to about 20 needy families. These baskets are actually four banana boxes with everything one needs for a complete Christmas dinner, food for a week, and presents for the children. There are two families who have been organizing the whole thing since the beginning and they are on their second generation. The whole event is full of traditions. Between the final packing in the morning and the arrival of the families in the afternoon, the organizers would go and get a burger at Ford’s. It was one of many traditions that had become part of Christmas for All, an event that one of the participants has told me is absolutely necessary for her to have Christmas.

I know that Ford’s was part of many peoples stories. We will miss Ford’s. Burges Brother Burgers has bought out some of Ford’s equipment and recipes and will start serving some of their offerings in a similar style. It is my hope that they can become a fixture in the community just as Ford’s was.

Thoughts on the ADA

I cannot however let this story go without making a few comments on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as it exists in California.

California has 12% of the nations disabled residents, but ac­counts for 40% of the nations ADA com­plaints.

The ADA was signed into law by George H. W. Bush in 1990. It was a broad and far reaching bill written specifically to cover as many situations as possible for the disabled. It was modeled on the 1964 Civil Rights act. Among its many requirements, the most well known are Title I, that employers make reasonable accommodations for disabled people, and Title III, which requires that public buildings be accessible.

One of the problems was that the law was written to apply broadly, but details like what accommodations were “reasonable” or what it meant for a building to be “accessible,” or even what constituted a disability were intentionally left to the courts to decide on a case-by-case bases. Even business that had made efforts to comply, could end up spending huge amounts of money defending the sufficiency of those efforts in court.

The ADA also has a provision for private enforcement. Many laws covering public accommodation can only be enforced by the government. For example, if one were to observe an emergency exit blocked by storage, that person would have to ask the fire marshal or code enforcement division of a city to bring suit. For an ADA violation on the other hand a private individual can go to court directly.

Nationally, this right of private suit is limited to some extent by a provision that limits damages to attorneys’ fees and corrective action. This would mean that, again on a national level, there was no financial incentive to bring a lawsuit if one could instead get the business owner to voluntarily comply. These provisions were meant to prevent shakedown lawsuits. Unfortunately the attorneys’ fees provision has allowed disabled attorneys to act as their own council and collect huge fee settlements when they file suit.

"Simply put, this litigation abuse of the ADA results in the exact harmful consequences that Congress sought to eradicate by passing the ADA."
- Judge Cormac J. Carney

California is a little different, and worse. Remember how I said that the ADA was structured on the 1964 Civil Rights Act? That structure caused the ADA to interact with a California statute called the Unruh Civil Rights Act which allowed people suing in state court to collect $4,000 per violation in statutory damages. California has 12% of the nations disabled residents, but accounts for 40% of the nations ADA complaints.

The upshot of all this is two fold. First, Businesses – particularly in California – exist under a constant cloud of doubt about the intentions of people potentially covered under the ADA. A law that was intended to make life easier on people with disabilities has also led to those same people being treated with fear and suspicion rather than openness and respect. U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney of the Central District of California put it best in ruling on a simular case, “Simply put, this litigation abuse of the ADA results in the exact harmful consequences that Congress sought to eradicate by passing the ADA.”[1]

Second it has led to public outcry against the ADA. Reading comments in the news reports about Ford’s closing, one finds almost exclusively anger and frustration directed towards the ADA.[2] These feelings of ill will are often extended not just to the law or the sleazy lawyers abusing it but to anyone with a disability. Public sentiment that in 1990 pushed a Republican President and Congress to enact an immense set of new government regulations has now turned hard the other way, particularly as long established businesses that have been anchors in their communities close or relocate because they cannot afford to become ADA compliant.

This year Gov. Brown signed SB1186(pdf) which places significant limits on ADA lawsuits and drastically cuts California’s statutory damages. It also, according to an e-mail from Matthew Hargrove, Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs at the California Business Properties Association, prevents lawyers from demanding money to settle an ADA claim:

[SB 1186] prohibits pre-litigation “demands for money” by attorneys; puts into place new provisions to prevent “stacking” of multiple claims to increase statutory damages; reduces statutory damages and provides litigation protections for defendants who correct violations; and establishes priorities for the California Commission on Disabled Accessibility that promote and facilitate disability access compliance.

The final result of all this: Another landmark business closes in south Sacramento – instead of an accessible restroom we get a vacant lot; a scummy lawyer makes another quick buck at the cost of one business, seven jobs, and tremendous ill will towards the group of people the law was intended to protect; and a well intended, popular and much needed Civil Rights law get pilloried, limited, and faces an uncertain future. Not a good day for anyone.

1. "The Price of Access: Part 1: Visionary law's litigious legacy" The Sacramento Bee. November 13, 2006; Page 1A. (

 See Also: Frequent ADA litigant faces attempt to shut him down The Sacramento Buisness Journal: "Unfortunately, the ADA filings make shop and restaurant owners leery of customers with disabilities, said one local store owner sued by Johnson. Shane Singh agreed. He is an attorney with Kring & Chung in Sacramento who has represented several clients sued by Johnson. 'A disabled person might meet suspicion and fear when he enters the restaurant,' Singh said, 'missing out on the usual greeting and proper service.'"

2. For example see "Congress Passes Americans With No Abilities Act" from the satirical publication The Onion.