San Francisco Chinatown businesses question fairness of ADA lawsuits

Leaders in San Francisco's Chinatown questioned the legitimacy Thursday of lawsuits violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. 

At least 100 businesses have been sued or received demand letters alleging ADA violations, such as inaccessible front doors and restrooms, Chinatown officials said. They said many of the lawsuits involve the same two plaintiffs.

"These plaintiffs are abusing ADA to extort Chinese-speaking mom-and-pop businesses," said Donald Luu, vice president of the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Luu said chamber officials had hoped that the merchant community could recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, Chinatown shops are facing "another crisis in this attack and exploitation," Luu said.

The Far East Cafe is one of Chinatown's oldest banquet halls. The pandemic forced it to close for more than a year. It reopened just last month.

But through a translator, owner Bill Lee said that joy was short-lived when he was sued.

"He was feeling like there's hope for coming out of COVID, coming out of the pandemic, suddenly he got hit by this lawsuit," the translator said.

Mayor London Breed said she supports accessibility for the disabled, "but we also understand the complexities and challenges that exist in Chinatown."

City administrator Carmen Chu said her own parents were hit by an ADA lawsuit years ago while running a restaurant in Southern California.

"It was really a scary thing," said Chu, who was a child at the time. "All of a sudden you have a lawsuit. You don't know what to do, and you worry like, ‘What does this mean for me?’"

District Attorney Chesa Boudin said earlier this month that he has launched an investigation into potentially fraudulent ADA lawsuits.

KTVU reached out to attorney Dennis Price in San Diego. He and his associates have filed many ADA lawsuits. 

Price wouldn't say how many may involve Chinatown businesses, but in a statement he said in part, "While I'm aware of the accusations that Chinatown businesses have been ‘targeted,' this is provably false. I agree with the DA that Chinese-owned businesses are no more likely to violate the ADA than any other.  A simple search of the docket will indicate that we do not discriminate in bringing suits. That said, every single case filed by our office is the result of a violation of state and federal law and my clients are enforcing those laws in the way the law intends."

Chinatown and city officials said they are raising funds to cover inspection, repair and legal costs.