The self-described “bounty hunter” lawyer, whose exploits around L.A. have been previously detailed in this space Nov. 4-5, 2002 and Mar. 12 of this year, has turned his talents to disabled-rights enforcement and swooped down on the city of Fresno, filing more than 130 lawsuits against local businesses over such alleged infractions as a too-high bathroom mirror and a hard-to-reach soda dispenser. Businesses usually pay between $5,000 and $12,000 to settle, says San Diego defense attorney James Reynolds. (Robert Rodriguez, “Fresno Businesses Are Sued Over Act”, Fresno Bee, Jul. 4) (via Southern California Law Blog). For more on ADA filing mills, see Mar. 9 and links from there and my City Journal article, “The ADA Shakedown Racket“.
In an update on ADA filing mills more than two years ago we noted the case of Alfredo Garcia, one of the busy class of serial plaintiffs who’ve sued hundreds of California businesses demanding money for accommodations violations, often represented by attorney Morse Mehrban, a longtime Overlawyered favorite. Garcia has also been described as an “illegal immigrant and convicted felon,” and KABC Los Angeles says that after filing more than 800 lawsuits, Garcia has actually been deported:
Based on previously disclosed settlements, Eyewitness News can estimate that Garcia has collected approximately $1.2 million from business owners since he began filing lawsuits in 2007.
At the same time, Garcia applies for and receives fee waivers from the courts by claiming he is too poor to pay the court fees associated with the lawsuits. That means taxpayers pick up the tab. …
[By 2010] he’d sued more than 500 businesses, including La Casita Mexicana in Bell. The restaurant owners were able to prove that Garcia had not been at their restaurant on the dates he claimed to have been there.
Many of them aren’t so nice, especially in California which incentivizes access complaints with $4,000 minimum per-violation damages as well as entitlement to attorney’s fees. “According to [defense attorney James] Link, more than 3,000 ADA lawsuits were filed in L.A. County in the last three years — more than 1,700 of them by attorneys Morse Mehrban of L.A. and Mark Potter of San Diego’s Center for Disability Access.” One of Potter’s prolific clients, Jon Alexander, formerly of Utah, might displace George Louie as the poster guy for controversial ADA litigants. [L.A. Weekly via Doherty]
Although you might say they’re a little late to this story, it’s still a welcome development. I discuss the piece and its background in a new Cato post (& welcome Glenn Reynolds/Instapundit readers). Hans Bader and Jacob Sullum also weigh in.
While we’re at it, here are some more links not yet blogged in this space on this busy extraction industry: Hackensack, N.J. has its own serial ADA filer [Bergen Record; letter from Marcus Rayner, NJLRA]. California small businesses continue their protests [Lodi News-Sentinel, background on George Louie; ABC L.A. (Alfredo Garcia, who’s filed hundreds of ADA suits, described as “illegal immigrant and convicted felon”; background on his attorney, Overlawyered favorite Morse Mehrban)] And in case you were wondering about the enabling role of the courts, here’s a recent Ninth Circuit decision ruling it an abuse of discretion for a trial court to have cut a lawyer’s fee award in an ADA barrier case [Bagenstos, Disability Law] Much more at our ADA filing mills tag.
- Judge Kozinski blasts prosecution of McAfee exec Probhat Goyal [Ribstein, Greenfield; related on federal overcriminalization, Rittgers/Cato]
- “If only laws were like sausages” [Robert Pear, NY Times]
- “Public Radio Looks at California ADA Lawsuits” [Frith, CJAC on “This American Life,” Thomas Mundy and Morse Mehrban]
- Guitar maker described as “litigation-addled”: “Gibson continues its IP-based business plan” [Coleman]
- Judge who heard Madison County, Ill. asbestos docket retires, is picked by lawyers as trustee of asbestos bankruptcy trust [Chamber-backed MC Record]
- Ted Frank’s Center for Class Action Fairness objects to Classmates.com class action settlement [CCAF, more, yet more]
- New Labor Department regs could chill management speech to workforce [Russ Brown, Open Market]
- Too bad there weren’t legal blogs around in 2000, some light might have been shed on Bush v Gore [Legal Blog Watch, Ann Althouse] Hey wait a minute [ten years ago on Overlawyered]
- Hospital can be sued for releasing mental patient who killed his wife ten days later [ABA Journal, Michigan]
- Pet-sitter draws probation on animal cruelty charges after letting pig overeat and get too fat [AP/Austin, Minn. Post-Bulletin]
- The government pressured states to raise drinking age to 21. So why didn’t the move save lives? [Miron/Tetelbaum, Forbes]
- “Goldman Sachs Tries To Bully Blogger” [Marc Randazza, Cit Media Law and Legal Satyricon; Ron Coleman, Likelihood of Confusion; Brian Baxter, American Lawyer; Martin Schwimmer, Trademark Blog (“I Don’t Think It’s The Dumbest Trademark Demand Letter I’ve Ever Seen”)]
- Dangers in using Title IX to go after sex imbalances in science and engineering, as Obama is said to want to do [Christina Hoff Sommers, Washington Post]
- Thomas Mundy and his attorney, frequent Overlawyered mentionee Morse Mehrban, have filed more than 200 ADA lawsuits against California merchants and other businesses, settling them for an income that opponents estimate as in excess of $300,000 a year each [L.A. Times back in January, California Civil Justice] But an Orange County jury took 18 minutes to dismiss Mundy’s suit against Del Taco [OC Register, MoreLaw, Ken @ Popehat and his followup] Noni Gotti’s 45-day spree of 41 lawsuits against 111 businesses and landlords in Santa Ana area [Jan Norman, OC Register; more on ADA filing mills]
- Police payouts up but hospital payouts down: “[New York] City Paid Out $568 Million for Lawsuits Last Year” [NY Politics; Ted yesterday]
- Another lawyer disclaimer with a sense of humor [Nicole Black/Legal Antics citing Kelly Phillips Erb/TaxGirl; earlier]
Last week, the California Supreme Court handed down yet another victory for abusive “antidiscrimination” litigation, ruling in favor of a California attorney who makes a business out of suing legitimate businesses for violations of California’s absurdly broad Unruh antidiscrimination law. Marc Angelucci and three of his fellow travelers sued the Century Supper Club, a nightclub, for charging women less than men on several occasions in 2002; although two lower courts found reasons to rule against them, the California Supreme Court ruled that their claims had merit. (Court decision: PDF)
Unfortunately, as a matter of law the Court is right. The Unruh law is written ridiculously, and it has no exception for bogus plaintiffs. (What’s the big deal? Just this: Unruh provides for a minimum of $4,000 damages, plus attorney’s fees, for successful plaintiffs, thus providing an incentive for Angelucci to turn an anti-Ladies’ Night crusade into a career. Even the California court recognized that its interpretation of the law improperly rewarded “professional plaintiffs and bounty-hunting attorneys,” but it (correctly) held that rewriting laws is for the legislature, not the courts.
Oh, and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in this case? Our old friend, Morse Mehrban. (Most recently covered: Apr. 17, and see links therein.) Mehrban and Angelucci have teamed up on these cases many times before.
We don’t generally endorse litigation as a solution to problems here at Overlawyered, but here’s one that just might be justified:
A business owner is suing an Anaheim man and his lawyer for filing at least 123 lawsuits that allege disabled-access law violations, saying the practice is “an effort to extort a quick and dirty settlement.”
In a lawsuit filed last week in Orange County Superior Court, Huy Dinh accuses David Gunther and Morse Mehrban of filing “frivolous lawsuits” to extort money from small businesses. Dinh, is suing alleging malicious prosecution, fraud and abuse of process, and seeks punitive damages.
Dinh was sued last year by the pair, who alleged a work station at his business was too high for disabled persons. A jury sided with Dinh, according to the lawsuit.
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.
As CoyoteBlog (Oct. 18) notes, this ballot initiative on drug prices contains a sneaky, little-discussed provision that will empower trial lawyers to file bounty-hunting suits against pharmaceutical companies if the companies charge prices “that lead to any unjust and unreasonable profit”, with a minimum $100,000 plus fees guaranteed to plaintiffs if a jury agrees that they have proved this (very hazily defined) offense. California has already earned the title of “Shakedown State” because of its bounty-hunting provisions on chemicals, disabled rights, consumer, education and labor law. And the San Diego Union-Tribune editorially criticizes Consumers Union for backing the benighted measure.