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]
The Northern California municipality will pay notorious serial ADA filer George Louie $15,000 in exchange for which he promises not to sue any more businesses within town limits, and drop current suits in that category. Of course he’ll go elsewhere instead. [CBS Sacramento, Sacramento Bee, Lowering the Bar] On Louie’s background, see this 2003 post.
- Whoops! Insurer’s lawyer backtracks and scrambles for cover after saying some Miami/Dade judges “are being paid off” [Daily Business Review; possibly related, scroll to mention of Miami near end]
- Climate’s different up there: Google and Wikipedia sued for libel in Canada over user-generated content [Rob Hyndman]
- Lawyers implicated in Ky. fen-phen scandal are owners of Curlin, horse that placed third in Kentucky Derby [Courier-Journal, Sun-Times, Sports Network, WSJ law blog]
- “As a lawyer, I hear stories about lawsuit abuse all the time,” but Judge Pearson’s pants suit takes the cake [Nasty Brutish & Short; also lively discussion at Digg]
- Ramps of gold: serial ADA-suit filers George Louie, David Gunther and others launch wave of sidewalk suits against Northern California towns [Contra Costa Times]
- $250 fine for releasing a balloon into the air in New Hampshire? Criminalizing nearly everything [National Law Journal; also Ayn Rand]
- Helpful, if scary: “12 Important U.S. Laws Every Blogger Needs To Know” [Aviva Directory]
- U.K. lawyers ordered to pay back tens of millions of pounds in excessive fees earned for representing sick miners [Times Online Apr. 16, Apr. 25, Apr. 10; Telegraph]
- Did Rosie O’Donnell come out for loser-pays on ABC’s “The View”? Someone please get a transcript [Bill Boushka]
- Japan doesn’t furnish us with much material, but here’s one about magicians suing TV broadcasters for revealing secrets behind coin tricks [Above the Law]
- Sensitivity vs. sensitivity: female drummers allowed to sue over their (culturally authentic) exclusion from ritual drumming at Native American powwow [five years ago on Overlawyered]
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.
“Must a rustic winery pave country lanes and a parking lot to welcome visitors in wheelchairs? … Facing off against the wineries is George Louie, the controversial head of the Americans with Disabilities Advocates in Oakland, California, who has sued hundreds of wineries, banks and stores to improve access for the disabled. ‘We hunt you down … We really do you in,’ he said in an interview. … Kathleen Finnerty, who has defended firms in many such cases, said difficult-to-meet rules to give access to the disabled have bankrupted some firms. A diaper shop in Oakland, a Berkeley winery, a Sacramento restaurant and a root beer stand have gone out of business following the suits, she said. … ‘Guys like George Louie who abuse the system, you know, create a problem for us with public perception, they create a problem with the courts,’ Wolinsky said [Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation of Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates]. ‘I’m totally opposed to that.’ Louie, who is black, said some of such criticism is fueled by racism.” (However, Disability Rights Advocates’ own more respectable uses of the ADA may prove equally or more damaging to the California economy: in a lawsuit going to trial this week, it’s trying to force the big clothing discounter Mervyn’s to uncrowd its merchandise displays so that wheelchair users can freely navigate between clothing racks, a step that if successful would markedly raise the cost of doing business.) (“California lawsuits test obligations to the disabled”, CNN, Aug. 8)(via Legal Reader).
“Virtually without exception, Louie’s defendants settle out of court by paying legal fees for both parties and the cost of facility upgrades. Bills commonly reach $10,000 — sometimes up to $100,000 — including at least $4,000 per case in awards to Americans With Disabilities Advocates. Last year alone, Louie said, revenues for Americans With Disabilities Advocates easily topped $500,000, mostly from out-of-court settlements.” Louie “likes to compare his organization to a well-oiled business” but claims not to draw a salary from AWDA. “In 1968, he was convicted of interstate transport of counterfeit checks and served more than six years in federal penitentiaries. He also said he served time in a state prison in the early 1980s for robbing a drug dealer.” (Mike Lee, “Disability activist sets sights on state’s wineries”, Sacramento Bee/Contra Costa Times, Jun. 8)(more on disabled-rights filing mills)(& welcome Reason “Hit and Run” readers).
April 29-30 — “Gunning for manufacturers through courts”. “A NYC council member is seeking to limit access to guns in NYC even more by opening the door to lawsuits against gun manufacturers who don’t follow a ‘corporate code of conduct’. David Yassky, a former law professor and aide for Chuck Schumer when he was a congressman, received money from 189 attorneys and others of his ‘social class’ in his successful campaign for Council, and filed an amicus brief in the US vs Emerson case encouraging a finding that in the 2nd Amendment, ‘bear arms’ meant for military use only.” (“Gunning for manufacturers through courts”, “Cut on the Bias” blog (Susanna Cornett), Apr. 22; “Metro Briefing: New York”, New York Times, Apr. 22).
On a happier note, the city of Boston last month dropped its extortionate lawsuit against the gun industry (David Abel, “Gun control forces say suits to go on”, Boston Globe, Mar. 29; “Mayor was right to drop gun case” (editorial), Boston Herald, Mar. 29 (“This case was frankly a publicity stunt — an expensive publicity stunt supposedly in the cause of ‘public health.’ But the roughly $500,000 it cost so far was diverted from other goals.”); “Boston Abandons Lawsuit Against Firearms Manufacturers”, National Shooting Sports Foundation press release, Mar. 28). (DURABLE LINK)
April 29-30 — “Erin Brockovich, the Brand”. “She gets confused with Heather Locklear and Suzanne Somers. … Over the course of last year, she became the most popular public-speaking client in the William Morris stable.” For newer readers, here’s our take. (Austin Bunn, New York Times Magazine, Apr. 28). (DURABLE LINK)
April 29-30 — Lawyers for chimps? “More and more legal reformers … are pressing to give chimpanzees legal standing — specifically, the ability to have suits filed in their names and to ask courts to protect their interests. … The advocates of granting legal standing to chimps have gained support from constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor.” (David Bank, “A Harvard Professor Lobbies to Save U.S. Chimps From Monkey Business”, Wall Street Journal, Apr. 25 (online subscribers only); “Monkeying Around With the Constitution”, Ribstone Pippin blog, Apr. 25; InstaPundit, Apr. 25) (& see May 14-15). (DURABLE LINK)
April 29-30 — “Targeting “big food'”. The “campaign against Big Food is following the attack on Big Tobacco almost to a ‘T.’ … Any day now, I expect to hear that Big Food has secretly been adding special ingredients with known health risks — like salt — to their products for years to tempt the ignorant.” (Bruce Bartlett, “Targeting ‘big food'”, National Center for Policy Analysis opinion editorial, Apr. 3). It is already being argued that obesity, like smoking, imposes costs through health care provision on the non-obese, allegedly justifying more intensive government regulation of lifestyle choices (Pierre Lemieux, “It’s the Fat Police,” National Post (Canada), Apr. 6). And a 1998 revision by the federal government of its Body Mass Index standards more or less ensures that a large portion of the population will be considered to be suffering from a weight problem; according to the index, NCAA basketball stars Lonny Baxter of Maryland, Oklahoma’s Aaron McGhee, Kansas’s Nick Collision and Indiana’s Tom Coverdale are all considered “overweight” and in need of more exercise. (“Husky hoops stars?”, Center for Consumer Freedom, Mar. 27). (DURABLE LINK)
April 26-28 — “Positive Nicotine Test To Keep Student From Prom”. In Hartford City, Ind., Blackford High School has banned senior Rob Mahon, 18, from the senior prom after he tested positive for nicotine in a random drug test. Mahon, who is the editor of the school newspaper, “did not smoke on school property and is upset that he’s being punished for an activity that is legal for someone his age.” School officials, however, said that Mahon “knew the rules prohibiting drugs, alcohol and nicotine before he agreed to the testing that’s required for those in extracurricular activities.” The Indiana Civil Liberties Union is planning to represent him in a legal challenge. (TheIndyChannel.com, Apr. 25). Update May 10-12: school backs down. (DURABLE LINK)
April 26-28 — “Support case hinges on failed sterilization”. An attorney for plaintiff Heather Seslar is attempting to convince the Indiana Supreme Court that the doctor whose effort to sterilize Seslar fell short, with the result that she became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy baby girl, should pay for the entire cost of raising the child to adulthood. “A lower court already has sided with Seslar. Unless the Supreme Court overturns that decision, Indiana would become the fifth state to grant parents who underwent sterilization the right to sue doctors for the costs of raising an unexpected child. California, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin also recognize the right.” (Vic Ryckaert, Indianapolis Star, Apr. 4). (DURABLE LINK)
April 26-28 — Columbia Law School survey on public attitude toward lawyers. A new nationwide survey commissioned by Columbia Law School asked a thousand respondents nationwide what they thought of the profession. It “contains some disheartening news for lawyers. … A full sixty percent of respondents said lawyers are overpaid, compared with a mere two percent who thought lawyers underpaid.” Thirty-nine percent considered lawyers either especially dishonest or somewhat dishonest, while 31 percent found them especially honest or somewhat honest, which left them faring better than politicians in the honesty ratings but sharply worse than police. Finally, respondents were asked: “Do you believe that lawyers do more harm than good by filing lawsuits that may raise the cost of doing business, or do they perform a beneficial role by holding big companies accountable to the law?” The wording of this question is decidedly peculiar — its first half, for example, states the case critical of trial lawyers about as ineptly as it is possible to do — and yet the side holding that lawyers “perform a beneficial role” prevailed by only a fifty to forty-one percent margin. (Michael C. Dorf, “Can the Legal Profession Improve Its Image?”, FindLaw, Apr. 17). (DURABLE LINK)
April 25 — “Disability rights attorney accused of having inaccessible office”. “The attorney who sued Clint Eastwood over disability accommodations at his hotel near Carmel was himself sued Tuesday on allegations his office bathroom was not wheelchair friendly. The federal suit was brought by George Louie, executive director of Oakland-based Americans with Disabilities Advocates. He alleges the bathroom and other amenities at attorney Paul Rein’s office in Oakland violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.” (AP/Contra Costa Times, Apr. 23)(see Oct. 2, 2000, Sept. 21, 2000 and links from there). Update: the allegations, which Rein vigorously contested, were later dropped without payment, according to court records (Joy Lanzendorfer, “Enforced Compliance”, MetroActive, Dec. 26, 2002). (DURABLE LINK)
April 25 — Mold sweepstakes: You May Already Be a Winner. “Entertainer Ed McMahon is suing his insurance company for more than $20 million, alleging that he was sickened by toxic mold that spread through his Beverly Hills house after contractors cleaning up water damage from a broken pipe botched the job.” (“Ed McMahon sues over mold, says dog died”, Los Angeles Times/ AZCentral.com, Apr. 9). Buyers of homeowners’ insurance may wind up among the losers: “State Farm, the largest insurer in California representing 22 percent of the market, decided last week that it would no longer write new homeowner policies in the state starting May 1. While that’s partly due to past losses, it’s also in large part due to the rising cost of mold-related claims. … In Texas, which has had the most claims increases [over mold] in the nation, rates have already nearly doubled for many homeowners.” (Deborah Lohse, “Mold becomes toxic issue to homeowners, insurers”, San Jose Mercury News, Apr. 23). Mold claims “could be the next asbestos. Yes, there’s a bit of difference: Asbestos fibers are known to cause disease and death. Whether household mold can do so is, to put it charitably, a matter of debate. But that hasn’t slowed the litigation over mold.” (Mary Ellen Egan, “The Fungus that Ate Sacramento,” Forbes, Jan. 21). Update May 21, 2003: McMahon’s claim said to have reaped $7 million settlement.
TEXAS MOLD LINKFEST: “Insurers estimate they paid out $670 million for mold-related property damage in Texas in 2001, more than double the total in 1999.” (Egan, Forbes, link above). See (all links 2001:) Jacob Sullum, “Fungi phobia”, TownHall.com, Aug. 21 (the wonderfully named Dripping Springs case); Bill Summers, “Mold cases could have a rotten effect”, San Antonio Express News, Oct. 18, reprinted at Texans for Lawsuit Reform; Eric Berger, “Mold Fears Overblown, Experts Say”, Houston Chronicle, July 12; CALA Houston links; Shannon Buggs, “Tackling Questions on Mold Coverage”, Houston Chronicle, Nov. 18; W. Gardner Selby, San Antonio Express News, “Coverage cut under review”, Nov. 13. (DURABLE LINK)
April 25 — Durbin’s electability. Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, a key Capitol Hill ally of the trial lawyers (he was the point man in defense of their unconscionable fees in the tobacco affair, for example), ran less well in his recent primary than incumbents usually do. Could he be headed for one-term status, like former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun? (Steve Neal, “Durbin lacks the profile of a winner”, Chicago Sun-Times, Apr. 24)(see July 7, 2000). (DURABLE LINK)
April 23-24 — Fieger’s ivied walls. Controversial attorney Geoffrey Fieger is in the news again after losing a murder case for a client in Sarasota, Fla.: “Chief Circuit Judge Thomas Gallen said Fieger should be punished for calling two men who served on the jury ‘Nazis’ and ‘creeps.’ Fieger fired back, saying he has a First Amendment right to say bad things about jurors and that he may sue the judge for saying otherwise. Gallen said the Michigan lawyer’s ‘outrageous’ behavior violated a Florida Bar rule that says an attorney ‘shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of’ court officials and jurors.” Fieger client Ralf Panitz, 42, “was convicted March 26 of killing his ex-wife, Nancy Campbell, on July 24, 2000, the same day he, Campbell and his new wife appeared on an episode of the ‘Jerry Springer Show.'” (Jennifer Sullivan, “Attorney, judge in war of words”, Manatee (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, Apr. 2).
Civility disputes involving Fieger are of course a staple item on this site. Last year, for example (see May 3, 2001), he faced a probe before the state attorney grievance commission following reports that he used his radio show to unleash “an obscenity-laced tirade” against three state appeals judges. For more examples of the Southfield, Mich.-based attorney’s style, see Sept. 14, 1999 and May 31, 2001. So it came as a bit of a shock to learn that the litigator’s name is now going to be adorning a prominent Michigan institution of legal education. According to Michigan State University’s law school, “Fieger has made a gift of $4 million to initiate and sustain the Geoffrey Fieger Trial Practice Institute,” billed as “the first trial practice institute at a law school designed specifically to train law students as successful trial lawyers.”
Rising to the dignity of the occasion in a press release, MSU-DCL dean and professor Terence Blackburn endorsed the school’s new benefactor in language well suited for a client recruitment brochure. “Mr. Fieger is arguably the most preeminent [sic] trial lawyer in the country, and he is an inspiration to our students,” Blackburn said. “It is Mr. Fieger’s dedication to his clients, his thorough preparation for each case and his skill in the courtroom that serve as a model for this institute.” (“Fieger’s $4 Million Gift To Law College at MSU Establishes Nation’s First Trial Practice Institute for Law Students”, MSU news release, Nov. 27; “$4 million gift to MSU-DCL funds trial practice institute”, MSU News, Dec. 6; “Fieger’s gift”, Lansing State Journal, Nov. 29 (defense of grant); letter from concerned alum, Detroit Free Press, Nov. 28). Last year the Detroit Free Press found Fieger unapologetic about charges by his opponents that he bullies and badgers witnesses on the stand. (Dawson Bell, “Fieger’s wins lose luster in appeals”, Detroit Free Press, May 29). “‘Trials are battles,’ Fieger said. Intimidating witnesses ‘is what trial attorneys do,’ he said.” Can we assume that it will therefore be a skill taught at the new institute? (DURABLE LINK)
April 23-24 — “Woman sues snack-food company for spoiling diet”. By reader acclaim: “A woman is suing a snack food company for $50 million saying its label on Pirate’s Booty corn and rice puffs foiled her diet. … Pirate’s Booty, manufactured by Robert’s American Gourmet Food, Inc., was recalled in January after the Good Housekeeping Institute found it contained 147 calories and 8.5 grams of fat, while its label said it contained only 120 calories and 2.5 grams of fat.” Now Meredith Berkman, 37, is suing claiming the mislabeling caused her to suffer “emotional distress” and “weight gain…mental anguish, outrage and indignation.” (AP/Salon, Apr. 13). Update: Feb. 9, 2006 (Berkman objects to settlement). (DURABLE LINK)
April 23-24 — Norway toy-ad crackdown. Yes, reports Bjorn Staerk on his blog (Mar. 25, Apr. 2), the Scandinavian country really does have an Ombudsman for Gender Equality whose apparent duties include monitoring sexism in toy ads, and yes, this ombudsman really is proposing to ban a particular toy ad which refers to boys as “tough”. (DURABLE LINK)
April 22 — Lawyers puree Big Apple. Figures from the City of New York’s fiscal year 2000 show that the city paid a record $459 million in judgments and settlements, a 10.5 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. $406 million of that figure was laid out on personal injury claims, up 11.5 percent from fiscal 1999. (Elaine Song, “Costs Climb for the City”, New York Law Journal, Mar. 21; “New York Sees Higher Verdicts in 2001”, New York Law Journal, Mar. 21; “Tort City, U.S.A.” (editorial), Wall Street Journal, Apr. 17 (online subscribers only). (DURABLE LINK)
April 22 — “How to Stuff a Wild Enron”. P.J. O’Rourke gives a flat tire to the pols and pundits who’ve tried to get anti-capitalist mileage out of the Enron scandal (The Atlantic, Apr.).
MORE ENRON LINKS: C. William (Bill) Thomas, “The Rise and Fall of the Enron Empire”, Texas Society of CPAs (via Political Hobbyist, who generously names us “one of the more famous blogs out there in the blogosphere“); Renee Deger, “Widening the Enron Net”, The Recorder, Apr. 9 (law firms, investment banks sued); Laura Goldberg, “Enron plaintiffs target bankers’ deep pockets”, Houston Chronicle, Apr. 5; Otis Bilodeau, “Gimme Shelter”, Legal Times, Apr. 16 (“In a worst-case scenario — where damages are so high that the firm itself goes bankrupt — partners in a general partnership could be forced to pay off the damage award over their entire careers.”); Renee Deger, “Leaning on the Lawyers”, The Recorder, Apr. 15; (prospects for Vinson & Elkins, Kirkland & Ellis); “Lerach’s Enron Sweep” (editorial), Wall Street Journal, Apr. 17 (online subscribers only); bloggers “Robert Musil” Apr. 14 and other dates, “Max Power” Apr. 10. (DURABLE LINK)
April 22 — “St- st- st- st- stop.” “A man with a stutter was turned down as a driving instructor by the British School of Motoring because he couldn’t say ‘stop’ fast enough in an emergency”. Mr. Arsenal Whittick, 39, has filed a complaint with an employment tribunal charging disability discrimination. (“Stutterer turned down as driving instructor”, Evening Standard, Apr. 11)(via andrewsullivan.com, from which our headline is also swiped). And Dave Kopel, analyzing the pending Supreme Court case of Chevron v. Echabazal (can employers exclude physically vulnerable workers from jobs that might kill them? — see Mar. 1), includes a very kind reference to this site. (National Review Online, Mar. 27). (DURABLE LINK)
April 21 — Social notes from all over: New York Blog Bash. It isn’t easy to get our editor over to Avenue B, but he brings back a glowing report of the Friday night event hosted by the formidable duo of Orchid and Asparagirl and with econ-blog-diva Megan McArdle in attendance. Not only were those present uniformly agreeable to converse with, but their weblogs — see the RSVP list at Daily Dose for a not quite complete list — collectively make for an afternoon’s browse that’s about 8,500% percent more enjoyable and stimulating than is afforded by, say, the Sunday New York Times. Update: photos courtesy Asparagirl (our editor is the one with the beard and dark clothes). (DURABLE LINK)