On January 1 last year, Bharat Patel answered a knock on his door at his property, the Comfort Inn Sunnyvale-Silicon Valley. It wasn’t the kind of New Year’s greeting he was expecting. The person at the door handed Patel papers serving him with a lawsuit claiming his hotel allegedly was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
It was the beginning of his experience with ADA nuisance lawsuits, which have been occurring with more frequency against hotel owners. It took him several months, some changes to his property, and the help of CHLA to deal with the outcome.
“The first thing that struck me was that the person named as the plaintiff had never stayed in the hotel,” he said. “They claimed that they wanted to stay here during a visit to San Jose and Santa Cruz, but then didn’t when they weren’t able to get into my lobby because there was a car parked outside there.”
Not only did it seem strange to him that he had been served on a holiday, but also that in the legal papers he had been handed was a list of lawyers Patel was invited to consider using—lawyers suggested by the attorney suing him. Soon after that, he says, he began getting letters from some of those lawyers offering to represent him in the case.
“It just looks like a factory, filing generic lawsuits against 20 or 30 hotels at a time, looking for a settlement,” he said.
Instead, Patel picked up the phone and began calling colleagues in the business and friends to ask them to recommend an attorney who could help him sort out the case. Many of them suggested he contact CHLA to have the association point him in the direction of a lawyer experienced in these cases.
Patel and his attorney decided that, rather than offer to settle, they would actually contest the suit in court. The strategy was twofold: Give the hotel time to investigate any potential violations and fix them, and to reinforce with the court system the nuisance nature of these type of suits.
“Judges are apparently seeing the same plaintiffs and the same lawsuit over and over,” Patel said. “The CHLA program was perfect, to try to fight this and educate the judges about what’s really going on.”
In fact, the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles filed a civil complaint on April 11 against the plaintiff’s law firm, calling the pattern of “boilerplate” lawsuits against hundreds of small businesses “fraudulent” attempts to exploit the ADA.
During the time he was contesting the suit against his hotel, Patel worked to correct any of the ADA issues on his property that were noted in the suit. He went beyond that, however, also hiring a CASp specialist—an expert in ADA compliance—to survey his property and prepare a report about anything that might be an issue. The inspectors will measure the size of parking lot stalls, rooms, doorways, and other areas to see if they meet the ADA standards for spacing and access, as well as other issues.
Fixing the main complaint in the lawsuit meant Patel had a car-length box painted in front of the lobby door and marked it “No Parking.” But the report turned up several other issues that weren’t in the lawsuit, giving him a chance to take care of them all. Patel spent some $50,000 on the upgrades, and then was able to settle the case for a much smaller sum than the plaintiff had sought.
Patel said that while the timing of all this wasn’t ideal, coming during the pandemic—as much as 80% of his business comes from job candidates for the high-tech industry—he said the cost of being proactive across the ADA spectrum was worth it.
“I want to keep the hotel long term,” said Patel, who grew up in residential hotels in San Francisco that were owned by his immigrant father, and went into the business himself after a career as an entrepreneur in the semiconductor industry. “So I just wanted to be able to address all the ADA issues at once.”