Trio of East Side mom-and-pop businesses worry they may not survive ADA lawsuits

The owners of Sunshine Bakery and Tank's Pizza said they feel unfairly targeted and question why an attorney is suing rather than helping work out a solution.

click to enlarge Tank’s Pizza owner Michael Brown said his restaurant regularly serves customers with disabilities, adding that everything inside is up to code. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Tank’s Pizza owner Michael Brown said his restaurant regularly serves customers with disabilities, adding that everything inside is up to code.

Since taking over the East Side's Sunshine Bakery in 2018, Kayla Matta has dealt with her share of adversity.

The 45-year-old panadería established by her grandparents has survived vandalism, a car crashing into its building and the lingering economic crunch of the pandemic.

Now, an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit from a local litigant with a history of such claims is seeking $20,000 in damages and legal fees — a financial hit Matta said she may not be able to handle. The suit accuses the small business of not having a ramp to its entryway and failing to provide van accessibility.

After being served with papers, Matta consulted with a local attorney but said she declined representation because the legal fees would exceed the amount sought in the suit.

"My grandmother was in tears. When we were leaving the lawyer's office, I told my mom about it, and she was crying on the phone," Matta said. "I don't understand what kind of person just looks around for people to pick on in this way. I've been crying since I read that letter."

Sunshine Bakery isn't the only business dealing with a lawsuit filed by plaintiff Joseph Castillo. Court records show he's filed more than a dozen suits citing ADA violations against local buildings.

Most target commercial property owners, investment or real estate firms, but at least three — including the petition against Sunshine — are against mom-and-pop businesses on the economically disadvantaged East Side. Tank's Pizza and Teresita's Mexican Restaurant were also recently served papers alleging they violated the ADA.

Tank's Pizza owner Michael Brown said the lawsuit felt like a "punch to the face." He said his restaurant regularly serves customers with disabilities, adding that everything inside is up to code.

The ADA violation Castillo cited against Tank's was a lack of parking for people with disabilities. The suit asks for $15,000 in damages.

Brown insists he had a sign designating the parking space, but it was stolen. He also acknowledges the blue paint designating the spot is now too faded to be seen.

"It's just one of those things that I'll get to, but we have other things that are just so much more pressing," he said.

Brown said paying out the $15,000 claim would likely bankrupt his pizzeria. In the short term, he worries the suit could cause his staff to lose confidence in the health of the business.

Fighting for compliance?

The Current made multiple attempts to reach both Castillo and his attorney Duncan Strickland for an interview. Castillo never returned calls, but Strickland did email a statement.

In the email, Strickland said he's proud to help clients enforce ADA rules, which have been in place since 1990. He added that he's happy to take on businesses that "thumb their nose at this law," especially those with multiple ADA violations.

"I am honored to represent individuals in wheelchairs to require these businesses to get into compliance with the law — something they have refused to do for decades," Strickland said.

Despite his work for Castillo, Strickland's Houston-based law firm specializes in property management, specifically evictions, according to its website.

Both Matta and Brown said they feel unfairly targeted and question why Castillo is pursuing claims against them rather than businesses with more significant violations.

"[We're] mom-and-pop shops you know, small restaurants, who barely made it through COVID," Brown said. "And we're finally starting to kind of bounce back a little bit. And now you're threatening to take everything from us."

'Quick way to make a buck'

Both Brown and Matta speculate the suits could be aimed at acquiring their buildings as gentrification continues to roll through the East Side. They said they're looking into joining forces with Teresita's Mexican Restaurant to hire an attorney that can represent all three businesses at a lower cost.

"I don't believe this gentleman has ever been to any one of our locations," Brown said. "I just think he's in cahoots with this law firm, and they figured it out, man, this is a quick way for them to make a buck."

Matta said she asked Strickland, the plaintiff's attorney, to reduce the claim or drop the suit once she brings the building up to code.

"He was kind of just like, 'No, my client needs the money because of legal fees, because that's what he paid me,'" Matta said. "When I told him that my grandparents don't have that much because they're on a fixed income, he kind of scoffed like, 'Well, I don't know where the money is going to come from, but it needs to come from somewhere.'"

In the meantime, Matta plans to use money out of her own pocket to fix the alleged violations. She's already started applying for permits to install a ramp. She's less sure how to deal with the financial fallout from the lawsuit, though.

"I'll figure it out, but it's going to be a lot of elbow grease and probably ... help from the community," Matta said. "The building is so old. It's been there since before the '70s. It didn't cross anybody's mind."

To that end, she started a "Save Sunshine Bakery!" GoFundMe campaign. At press time Monday, it's only raised $1,670 of its $20,000 goal.

Local complaints

San Antonio visual artist Jacqueline Lucero is a regular at the bakery and has participated in pop-up events there. During Sunshine's June 18 night market, artists donated their sales to help with the legal woes.

"It really frustrated me because it's a small business, and I'm a disabled person. I have a broken back. I use a cane sometimes," Lucero said. "Kayla has made it a point to try to make the space as accessible for me as possible."

The city of San Antonio's Disability Access Office (DAO) fields complaints against businesses suspected of being out of ADA compliance. While the office will send an education letter to businesses about their violations, the city doesn't have enforcement authority.

"The DAO recommends residents speak with the owner and manager of a business prior to filing a formal complaint with either Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation or with the Department of Justice or filing a lawsuit," said Deborah Scharven, the city's accessibility officer.

Matta said even her 10-year-old daughter, who has a close friend in a wheelchair, questions why someone would sue her mom rather than ask her to make upgrades to the building.

"[She] said 'I think that you need [a ramp], Mom. But I don't think that somebody should be doing it like this,'" Matta said. "She knows. If a little kid knows right from wrong, it should be obvious to [an adult] ... why it's so wrong."

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