Another client of Price’s, a lawyer named Scott Johnson, who is quadriplegic, is perhaps the most infamous of serial litigants. This is partly because of the volume of his cases — on occasion he has filed more than a dozen lawsuits in a single day — and partly because he has himself encountered legal trouble, including a federal indictment for failing to pay taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars he has earned in recent years from A.D.A. settlements. (Johnson pleaded not guilty — his lawyer in that case, Malcolm Segal, contends that Johnson’s settlement money was tax-exempt — and the case is awaiting trial.)
Johnson’s former paralegals have said that he used to instruct them to drive around town looking for violations so Johnson could file suit. At times, paralegals said, he would accompany them, but rarely leave the car. (Price said Johnson was always present when potential violations were identified.) In any given year, Johnson files 300 to 400 lawsuits in California; he has filed thousands over the course of his career. A handful of businesses closed for good following lawsuits: a hamburger joint, a deli, a beloved pool hall. “As for Scott Johnson, he got nothing from me but a closed business,” Mike Murphy, the owner of the shuttered Jointed Cue pool hall, told me. “The heartbreaking part of this is that it’s a staple in the community. It’s a historic place. And that’s gone because of this lawsuit.”
Price noted that a business’s closure after a lawsuit “does not imply causation.” He said that he and his colleagues see their clients as helping to enforce an important law. “These are testers,” Price told me. “They are making sure that California is compliant. They are putting themselves and their time on the line for access.” In 2007, in response to a lawsuit claiming vexatious disability litigation, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion making a similar point: “For the A.D.A. to yield its promise of equal access for the disabled, it may indeed be necessary and desirable for committed individuals to bring serial litigation advancing the time when public accommodations will be compliant with the A.D.A.”
Once Dytch sued Top Hatters, Vu thought it might be over for the restaurant. But she rallied, taking out a loan with a double-digit interest rate, while also borrowing from relatives, to keep the business afloat and pay a lawyer.
She did some research on Dytch and learned that he was a serial filer: “He did this for a living,” she concluded. She was committed to her restaurant’s being accessible to all guests, she said, but to her eye, Dytch’s lawsuit was a ploy for cash. The timing, during a catastrophic pandemic, didn’t help. On some nights, Vu had only six orders, but she needed roughly 50 to break even. “We basically kept it open and running so that our workers would have a job,” she told me. In spite of the generosity she felt from a band of customers who stayed loyal to the restaurant — one even donated $200 from his stimulus check to Top Hatters — she was sinking deeper into debt and growing misanthropic. “For a while there,” she told me, “I just looked at everyone like: ‘You’re going to sue to me. You’re out to get me,’ you know?”
In many accessibility lawsuits, A.D.A. inspectors are hired to take a look at properties and see where they fall short. According to Candice Lui, an inspector who visited Top Hatters, the counter that Dytch had complained about was, in fact, compliant. Lui recommended a few other changes, however, to ensure accessibility: moving a chair and cabinet from the bathroom; using stickers to indicate which tables were accessible; installing a locking mechanism to keep the gate from accidentally closing during business hours. (Dytch said, “I don’t believe the list of recommended changes adequately represents the situation, but confidentiality constrains me from providing a fuller account.”)
To an extent, Vu felt vindicated. “But my lawyer said it’s cheaper and faster to just settle and do what they say than fight it,” she told me. In September 2020, the parties settled: Top Hatters would pay a certain sum and fix the issues that the inspector had found. The terms of the settlement prevent both parties from disclosing the amount. It was less than the initial $75,000 Dytch demanded but large enough that Vu recalls thinking, Well, there goes our tuition money. (Her son was heading to college.)