We’ve linked in the past to a lot of excellent investigative journalism on the disabled-rights filing mills that have blanketed whole business districts in California and elsewhere with accessibility complaints that quickly convert to cash demands. (Some examples: Carmel (Calif.) Pine Cone on Jarek Molski and Thomas Frankovich, blogger George Wallace on Jerry Dolan, CNN on George Louie, among others; and I might as well promote my own 2004 effort for City Journal). Among the most riveting of the bunch appeared this fall in Southern California’s Orange County Weekly. (R. Scott Moxley, “The New Crips”, Orange County Weekly, Oct. 13). A few highlights:
* “Lawyers familiar with [wheelchair user David Allen] Gunther’s activities estimate he’s taken more than $400,000 in the last 36 months, mostly from mom-and-pop shops in Garden Grove, Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Orange, Tustin, Buena Park, Stanton, Seal Beach, Santa Ana, Dana Point, Huntington Beach and Los Angeles. If true, that’s quite a haul for a man who has spent most of his adult life unemployed, according to records obtained by the Weekly.”
* One of the first targets of Gunther’s suits, a flower seller in Anaheim, fought back, pointing out to a judge that she was herself wheelchair-bound and that her shop had a ramp. Gunther’s suit was dismissed, with no apology; “on the day Gunther said he drove to Gibson’s flower shop, he claimed in separate legal filings that he also wanted to patronize Gibson’s neighbors: a massage parlor, a dental office and a palm reader.” He got money from the massage parlor but not from the palm reader, who like the flower seller pointed out to Gunther’s lawyer that he did indeed have a ramp.
* “A Weekly investigation traced Gunther’s activities around the western U.S. during the last quarter of a century, uncovering evidence that not only has he exaggerated his reliance on a wheelchair, but he’s also whitewashed his own history of chronic unemployment, multiple drug addictions, narcotics trafficking, assaults, petty thefts, burglaries, a decade of missed child support payments, and more than a dozen arrests and stints in jail.”
* Gunther’s lawyer is none other than longtime Overlawyered favorite Morse Mehrban, (Nov. 4-5, 2002, Mar. 12, 2004, Jul. 9, 2004). Faced “with a discovery demand for the details of Gunther’s ADA settlements, Mehrban resisted for weeks, arguing that the information was ‘confidential and proprietary.’ Said Mehrban, ‘There is nothing to be gained by examination of the documents.’ Eventually, he told a judge that the issue was moot. He routinely destroys all Gunther’s paper records and erases the memories of his office computers, he said.”
* Nor is it possible for members of the outside public or media to attend the monthly meetings of Equal Access Now, a group Gunther has set up to promote access complaints. “‘Sorry, it’s private,’ said Gunther. ‘I teach disabled people about their rights.’” Gunther often files actions in concert with three other wheelchair users, each of whom claims the $4,000 per violation entitlement.
* After ending a client relationship with his own former lawyer, Gunther sued, claiming the lawyer’s bathroom was unaccessible. The lawyer’s staff said that Gunther not only had used the bathroom without incident but that he had in fact comfortably walked into and out of the office on repeated visits.
* At a meeting of some of Gunther’s victims in Santa Ana, “Jin Kim, owner of a barbecue restaurant at 17th Street and Grand Avenue, cried. He recounted the shock of getting the lawsuit without warning, how Mehrban had coldly refused to negotiate despite pleas, and that he had to sell his wife’s ring and a vehicle to pay Gunther $16,000—and his own attorney another $4,000 in fees. His crime? His restroom mirror was allegedly mounted a few inches too high and the door was a few pounds too heavy to push.”
* And his lawyer’s own offices? As it happens, they’re up a steep flight of steps in Koreatown: “Mehrban says it would not be practical to make his office accessible to the handicapped.”
The whole article, again, is here. Note that the California legislature has shown no discernible interest in amending the Unruh Act so as to curb this kind of entrepreneurial activity. Note also that the “ADA Notification Act”, a proposal in Washington aimed at curtailing cognate abuses based on the federal ADA, was unable to attain any serious traction even in the supposedly pro-business Republican Congress now drawing to its close.
P.S. Gunther’s activities also figured in the notable and recently decided case of Gunther v. Lin, discussed by Ted Dec. 1.