Sacramento attorney Scott Norris Johnson, who gained notoriety among California businessmen as he filed thousands of disability claims for the past 20 years, is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to one count of filing a false tax return, part of a plea deal that could have sent him to 18 months of house arrest.
A plea before U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez in federal court in Sacramento is expected to close the case indictment on three counts of taxation against Johnson since 2019, when he was still working at his peak hours, visiting businesses and suing for alleged violations Americans with Disabilities Act.
Johnson’s attorney, Malcolm Segal, stressed Monday that his client’s plea deal involves a dispute over tax returns, not a charge related to his serial ADA claims.
“While it is clear that parts of Mr. Johnson’s tax returns were inaccurate, the government has settled its claims against him and put an end to this case,” Segal said. “Of course, we’re waiting for the court to approve the settlement and decide whether, along with the government’s determination not to take this case to court.”
“It’s just about taxes,” Segal added.
The plea agreement calls for Johnson, 60, to plead guilty to one count of filing a false tax return for the 2012 tax year, pay $250,000 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service and face up to 18 months of house arrest, and not prison because he is a paraplegic who relies on a motorized wheelchair and a service dog.
The maximum penalty for the charge is three years in prison, a $250,000 fine and one year of supervised release.
Johnson will be allowed to visit businesses during his incarceration, Segal said, adding that Johnson’s lawsuits are none of his business, but his determination to enforce the far-reaching ADA 1990.
“Probation will decide what conditions to apply to him to leave his home, but it’s important to understand that this was not his job,” Segal said. “His passion was visiting businesses to make sure they were in compliance.”
Business owners and attorneys who have faced him in court cast a different light on Johnson, saying that over the years he sometimes filed lawsuits after simply driving past their establishments and later agreed to settle cases in exchange for payments and settlements on the elimination of ADA violations related to parking spaces, handrails and ramp levels.
“Given his court history and how it has affected many small businesses in the region — and even closed some — I believe justice will be served,” said Sacramento attorney Shane Singh, who has defended about 175 cases related to the lawsuits. Johnson and won several that went to court. “I’m glad the trial went the way it did.”
Johnson was the center of attention a three-part investigative series in The Sacramento Bee in 2006, “The Cost of Access,” which described how lawyers use ADA lawsuits to enforce the law, but also to make thousands of dollars from small business owners who quickly agree to settle lawsuits rather than fight them in court.
Court documents say Johnson has filed at least 4,000 such lawsuits against Northern California business and property owners, many through his firm, Disabled Access Prevents Injury.
He later used the San Diego-based law firm Potter Handy, which provided prosecutors with various documents “including numerous settlement agreements related to Johnson’s lawsuits, engagement agreements and emails,” according to the plea agreement.
“Potter Handy also prepared a spreadsheet listing the settlement amounts and attorneys’ fees paid in connection with each claim filed by Potter Handy, along with the corresponding settlement dates,” according to the court filing. “According to Potter Handy, Johnson received settlement payments totaling approximately $93,000 in 2013 and $1.1 million in 2014.
“After withholding attorneys’ fees paid to Potter Handy, Johnson personally received $31,000 and $419,000 in 2013 and 2014, respectively.”
Those documents were among more than 447,000 pages of documents accumulated in the case, court filings said.
Even after being indicted on the tax charges, Johnson did not slow down in filing the lawsuit, a June 2021 analysis of federal court documents showed. In the year since the May 2019 indictment, Johnson, a Carmichael resident, has filed more than 1,000 ADA lawsuits in the Bay Area, sometimes filing a dozen or more in the same day.
In a deposition he gave in September to Singh in a lawsuit Johnson filed against the Bay Area restaurant, Johnson described himself as someone who spends his weekends in the Bay Area because he likes it and that he acts as an “ADA tester.”
“My personal definition is a person with a disability who will go into a business for their goods and services and, you know, face a barrier related to — like, me related to my disability,” he said. “Depending on the nature and extent of the barrier, I will seek enforcement, removal of that barrier.”
Segal defended his client, saying Johnson’s lawsuits have helped many other people with disabilities gain access to businesses.
“Over the years, Scott Johnson has given businesses a chance to fix problems by agreeing to make the changes needed to ensure that seniors and sick people can enjoy the same access to shopping and dining that everyone else has, without having to sue,” Segal said. . said. “When businesses didn’t do what the law required, Scott Johnson sued them and forced them to make the necessary changes to give people access to businesses.”