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California Supreme Court Rules for Prevailing Defendants in Disability Access Actions

December 19, 2012

The California Supreme Court confirmed Monday in Jankey v. Lee that a prevailing defendant in a disability access lawsuit is entitled to recover attorney’s fees and costs from the plaintiff – when the plaintiff alleges both a federal claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and a state law claim under Civil Code Section 55. The League filed an amicus brief in the case, supporting the small business owner who prevailed.

 

The owner of a corner store in the Mission District of San Francisco successfully defended an ADA lawsuit by a customer who alleged that a step on the threshold of the store made the store inaccessible. The store owner proved that it was not feasible to remove the step and install a ramp, and that he had been serving disabled patrons through alternative means. The store owner spent $130,000 in attorney fees to defend the lawsuit.  

ADA allows a prevailing defendant to recover fees only if the action was frivolous. Civil Code Section 55, in contrast, provides for mandatory fee awards to the prevailing party – whether plaintiff or defendant – without a determination that the action was frivolous. In making its decision, the Supreme Court explicitly disagreed with a recent federal Ninth Circuit case that held the ADA preempts Section 55's broader entitlement to recovery of attorney’s fees. Instead, the Supreme Court held that Section 55 mandates attorney’s fee awards to all prevailing parties in disabled access actions involving state claims, including to prevailing defendants.

The ruling will allow small business owners and government entities in California to recover their fees if they prevail in a state court action based on disabled access issues under Civil Code Section 55, even if the plaintiff has also alleged claims under the ADA.

The League thanks Dennis J. Herrera, city attorney of San Francisco, and James M. Emery, deputy city attorney, for filing the amicus brief on the League’s behalf.



 
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