Sacramento attorney Scott Norris Johnson, who gained notoriety among California business owners as he filed thousands of disability lawsuits over the past 20 years, is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to a single count of filing a false tax return, part of a plea agreement that could net him 18 months of home confinement.
The plea before U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez in Sacramento federal court is expected to close the books on a three-count tax indictment against Johnson from 2019, when he was still operating at the height of his time visiting businesses and suing over alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Johnson's attorney, Malcolm Segal, emphasized Monday that his client's plea agreement involves a dispute over tax returns, not any charge involving his serial ADA lawsuits.
"While it is clear that some portions of Mr. Johnson's tax returns were not accurate, the government settled their claim against him and put this case to an end," Segal said. "Of course, we wait for the court to approve the agreement and determine whether or not to along with the government's determination not to take this case to trial."
"This case is just about taxes," Segal added.
The plea agreement calls for Johnson, 60, to plead guilty to one count of filing a false tax return from the 2012 tax year, pay $250,000 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service and face a sentence of 18 months of home confinement rather than prison because he is a quadriplegic who relies on a motorized wheelchair and service dog.
The maximum penalty for the count is three years in custody, a $250,000 fine and one year of supervised release.
Whether Johnson would be permitted during his sentence to venture out to visit businesses is up to federal probation officials, Segal said, adding that Johnson's lawsuits were not his business but a determination by him to see that the terms of the visionary 1990 ADA were followed.
"Probation will decide what terms to apply for him to leave his home, but it's important to understand this was not his work," Segal said. "His visiting businesses to make sure they were in compliance was his passion."
Business owners and attorneys who faced off in court against him saw Johnson in a different light, saying over the years that he sometimes filed lawsuits after simply driving by their establishments and later agreed to settle cases in exchange for payments and agreements to fix ADA violations involving parking spaces, handrails and ramp levels.
"Given his litigious history and how it has affected numerous small businesses in the region - and has even shut some down - I think it's fitting and proper that justice be served," said Sacramento attorney Shane Singh, who has defended about 175 cases involving suits by Johnson and won several that went to trial. "I'm glad that the legal process played out in this manner."
Johnson was a focus of a three-part investigative series in The Sacramento Bee in 2006, "The Price of Access," that described how lawyers use ADA suits to force compliance with the law but also to earn thousands of dollars from small business owners who quickly agree to settle the suits rather than fight them out in court.
Court papers say Johnson filed at least 4,000 such lawsuits against Northern California business and property owners, filing many through his Disabled Access Prevents Injury firm.
Later, he used the San Diego-based Potter Handy law firm, which provided prosecutors with various records, "including numerous settlement agreements related to Johnson's lawsuits, engagement agreements, and emails," the plea agreement says.
"Potter Handy also produced a spreadsheet listing settlement amounts and attorney's fees paid in connection with each lawsuit filed by Potter Handy, along with associated settlement payment dates," the court filing says. "According to Potter Handy, Johnson received settlement payments totaling approximately $93,000 in 2013 and $1.1 million in 2014.
"After withholding attorney's 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 say.
Even after facing indictment on the tax counts, Johnson did not slow down his lawsuit filing, a June 2021 Bee analysis of federal court filings found. In the year since his May 2019 indictment, Johnson, a Carmichael resident, filed more than 1,000 ADA lawsuits in the Bay Area, sometimes filing a dozen or more on the same day.
In a deposition he gave in September to Singh over a lawsuit Johnson had filed against a Bay Area restaurant, Johnson described himself as someone who spends his weekends in the Bay Area because he enjoys it and that he acts as an "ADA tester."
"Just my personal definition is someone with a disability who will go to a business for their goods and services, and, you know, encounter a barrier related to - like myself related to my disability," he said. "Depending on the nature and extent of the barrier, I will then seek enforcement, removal of that barrier."
Segal defended his client, saying Johnson's lawsuits helped many other disabled citizens gain access to businesses.
"Over the years, Scott Johnson has given businesses an opportunity to correct problems by agreeing to make the changes needed so that elderly and infirm people can enjoy the same access everyone else has to shop and dine without him having to file a lawsuit," Segal said. "If the businesses did not do what the law requires, Scott Johnson sued them and forced them to make changes necessary to grant people access to the business."