Sacramento attorney who filed thousands of ADA lawsuits sentenced

Sacramento attorney who filed thousands of ADA lawsuits sentenced

Scott Norris Johnson, a quadriplegic lawyer who for 20 years sued thousands of California businesses over access for the disabled, was sentenced Tuesday in a Sacramento courtroom to 18 months of home detention and $250,000 in restitution after pleading guilty to filing a false tax return.

But the sentencing came only after Senior U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez insisted that Johnson face a fine for his behavior, a requirement that had not been included in the plea agreement between the prosecution and Johnson defense attorney Malcolm Segal.

“I think he should pay a significant fine given his financial condition, how much money he has,” Mendez said.

The judge said Johnson has $1.3 million in assets and a monthly income of more than $81,000, and he added that if not for Johnson’s serious medical requirements he would be facing a prison sentence.

“It’s significant enough conduct and a breach of trust, especially for a member of the Bar, that a prison term would be appropriate,” Mendez said.

Segal argued that despite Johnson’s financial holdings, much of it will be exhausted as Johnson faces monthly medical expenses of $26,000.

Mendez offered to put off sentencing so that a new agreement could be reached, but Johnson agreed to the $50,000 fine Mendez wanted, which was more than double the $20,000 fine recommended by probation officials.

The judge also ordered Johnson to face location monitoring and to have his annual tax returns reviewed by a certified public accountant and handed over to probation officials.

Most significantly, Mendez ordered Johnson not to seek out violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and not to file lawsuits in federal or state courts against businesses that may be in violation of the ADA while he is in home detention.

The judge added that he did not consider Johnson, a former IRS worker, to be remorseful.

“Honestly, Mr. Johnson, I don’t see a great deal of remorse in your statement,” Mendez said. “That concerns me.

“I’m not sure why you felt entitled to defraud the IRS, especially given your background. You should have known better.”

Serial ADA lawsuit filer Scott Johnson leaves his 2019 appearance after being indicted on tax charges in Sacramento. On Tuesday, Johnson was sentenced to 18 months home confinement, $250,000 in restitution and $50,000 in fines for his guilty plea.
Serial ADA lawsuit filer Scott Johnson leaves his 2019 visual appearance right after currently being indicted on tax costs in Sacramento. On Tuesday, Johnson was sentenced to 18 months household confinement, $250,000 in restitution and $50,000 in fines for his responsible plea. Paul Kitagaki Jr. Sacramento Bee file

Johnson, seated in a wheelchair at the defense table accompanied by his service dog, responded by saying, “I am truly sorry that I am here because of my taxes. I’m sorry.”

“Well, you’re here because you decided to defraud the United States,” Mendez replied.

Johnson could have faced a sentence of up to three years in prison.

Johnson’s sentence stems from a three-count tax indictment by a federal grand jury and follows his guilty plea last November to one count of filing a false tax return from the 2012 tax year.

His license to practice law was suspended following his guilty plea, and he was ordered not to seek reinstatement while under the 30 months of probation imposed by Mendez, who made it clear he was unhappy with the fact that Johnson had not voluntarily resigned from the Bar.

His 2019 indictment sparked unbridled joy among some of the business owners he sued alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA became law in 1990 and still generates debate between disability advocates who say businesses have had ample time to adhere to the law and business owners who contend attorneys like Johnson conducted drive-bys of their locations without actually intending to patronize them.

Johnson, a Carmichael resident, was a subject of a 2006 Sacramento Bee investigation, “The Price of Access,” that described how he and other disability attorneys used their suits to bring businesses into compliance while also generating thousands of dollars in settlement payouts from small business owners.

His reporting of that income to the IRS eventually led to the indictment, court papers say.

“For the years 2012 through 2014, Johnson willfully failed to report a portion of the settlement payments he received as income on his tax returns,” according to the plea agreement filed in court.

Segal wrote in a court filing that Johnson’s lawsuits were part of his determination to see that businesses provided access to the disabled.

“That method of enforcement was planned by the drafters of the legislation to bring businesses into compliance,” Segal wrote.

Johnson has been disabled since 1981, when a co-worker driving with Johnson as a passenger struck an office building pillar, Segal wrote.

Despite his physical limitations, Johnson graduated from college, became an attorney and started a family, but “suffered a substantial setback” in the 1990s while he was working at his job in the Internal Revenue Service office on Watt Avenue, Segal wrote.

“On what had been a typical workday afternoon, he decided to have lunch at a nearby and busy fast-food business frequented by other employees in the building who generally used a well-worn path to get to the front entrance.

“There was no planned access for people using a wheelchair or with other physical limitations. To get to the restaurant, he entered a driveway to wheel his chair down to the front entrance, and while crossing the roadway he was backed over by a truck driver who did not see him in the wheelchair.

“This second accident caused significant physical injury, exacerbated his disability, and contributed to a lifetime of related medical issues.”

Segal noted in his filing that the IRS regulations for reporting income from such lawsuit settlements are complex, but added that Johnson was not making excuses for his tax filings.

“He has fully accepted responsibility for his conduct,” Segal wrote.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine Lydon wrote in a sentencing memo that Johnson’s history as an IRS worker meant he knew he was misstating his income on tax returns.

“The nature and circumstances of the offense consist of a long running practice of Johnson understating his income in order to not pay or drastically underpay his taxes,” she wrote. “The history and characteristics of the defendant likewise warrant restricting Johnson’s freedom for 18 months: as a lawyer and former IRS employee, Johnson knew that his ADA lawsuit proceeds were taxable income.

“Instead of accurately reporting the high income he obtained every year through those ADA suits, he used his legal knowledge to fabricate a rationale that somehow some of the lawsuits were actually personal physical injury suits.”

Some business owners say ADA suits drove them out of business, while disability advocates say they simply are using the law to ensure they have equal access.

Over the years, Johnson became one of the most notorious serial filers, with court documents estimated he filed more than 6,250 lawsuits since 2003.

Even after he was indicted, Johnson did not slow his pace but turned his attention away from the Sacramento region to the Bay Area, where a Sacramento Bee review found he had filed more than 1,000 lawsuits in the year since his indictment. On some days, he would file a dozen or more lawsuits.

Before the sentencing hearing, Johnson’s attorney filed character letters from Johnson’s family, friends and employees to the judge.

One, from his son, Scott M. Johnson, praised Johnson for his efforts to increase access for the disabled.

“I have been many places with my dad which were not wheelchair accessible and I have see the struggles he faced,” his son wrote. “Still never stopping.

“Always making the future brighter and easier for others with disabilities.”

His ex-wife, Hilda Johnson, wrote that she remains “very close friends” with him and that they “parented our son together as a team.”

“Despite what the media and business owners have portrayed Scott to be on social media they are so wrong about who Scott is and what Scott is determined to change for the better for fellow disabled citizens,” she wrote. “His goal has always been to make life less challenging.

“Scott over the years has received so many thank you letters, people coming up to him in person to say thank you for fighting for better accessibility.”

This story was originally released April 11, 2023, 11:14 AM.

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee due to the fact 1991 and has included a wide variety of concerns, which includes politics, felony justice and breaking news.