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Thomas Frankovich

September 17 roundup

by Walter Olson on September 17, 2008

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Many small businesses in the historic and much-visited neighborhood have been hit with ADA complaints, often from the law offices of famed serial ADA filer Thomas Frankovich. (Carol Lloyd, “Surreal estate: ADA accessibility lawsuits causing headaches for small business owners”, San Francisco Chronicle, Jun. 13). “I’ve seen the ADA racket threaten businesses in other towns, and they ended up closing. The owner [of a small chocolate shop that has now laid off three workers] has never gotten a formal complaint from a wheelchair-bound person, except for this suit.” (“SF_Anna”, “North Beach Block Threatened by ADA Suits”, MetBlogs, Aug. 20).

It looks as if, barring intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, serial ADA litigant Jarek Molski and his lawyer Thomas Frankovich, longtime Overlawyered favorites both, won’t be filing any more accessibility lawsuits in California’s populous Central District. The Ninth Circuit’s decision not to disturb an order to that effect by the late Judge Edward Rafeedie, however, came by a surprisingly narrow margin, with nine judges dissenting. Among them, Judge Marsha Berzon said Rafeedie should not have acted unilaterally to bar the two from suing throughout the district, while Alex Kozinski went so far as to maintain that Rafeedie had failed to offer evidence in suggesting “that Molski is a liar and a bit of a thief”. The majority of judges, however — and the Ninth is among the last circuits anyone would accuse of an excessive wish to shut down litigation — disagreed. (Dan Levine, “9th Circuit Judges Blast Order Barring ADA Lawyer”, The Recorder, Apr. 9). One final bit from the account in the Recorder might cause the reader’s jaw to drop open, as it did mine:

Rafeedie died of cancer late last month, but Frankovich still holds a grudge.

“What he did is morally reprehensible,” the attorney said Monday. “Acting morally reprehensible creates bad karma, and sometimes you have to pay the piper for bad karma.”

In other news of vexatious California litigants:

For years, self-described public-interest litigator Burton Wolfe has bragged that he was one of the few people to get off the state’s so-called vexatious litigant list for self-represented plaintiffs who file frivolous lawsuits. Those who are put on the list can file “pro per,” or do-it-yourself, lawsuits only with a judge’s permission. But after enjoying a few years off the blacklist, the 75-year-old Wolfe has sued his way back onto the roster. … [His name was restored to the list after] he sued the San Francisco Food Bank and America’s Second Harvest for setting up what he calls a food “racket” in the privately owned low-income senior-housing Eastern Park Apartments where he lives.

(Lauren Smiley, “Vexatious Litigant Burton Wolfe Fighting Eviction After Threatening More Lawsuits”, San Francisco Weekly, Feb. 20). Perhaps the most celebrated of modern San Francisco’s vexatious litigants is Patricia A. McColm, who has been profiled in a number of news stories including Ken Garcia, “Woman who sues at drop of hat may get hers”, San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 2000, reprinted at Forensic Psychiatric Associates site. Incidentally, the British court system is thoughtful enough to post its list of vexatious litigants online, an obvious aid to persons who might find themselves the target of threatened suits by persons on the list. But although the California courts have a webpage discussing the fact of their having a list, I could find no sign that they had posted the list itself online. Have any U.S. states (or Canadian provinces, etc.) done so?

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We’ve been covering the exploits of professional ADA plaintiff Jarek Molski and his lawyer Thomas Frankovich for a long time now (See Aug. 3, Mar. 23, many others). When last we checked, Molski/Frankovich were appealing a federal judge’s finding in Molski v. Evergreen Dynasty Corp. that they were vexatious litigants; the designation meant that they couldn’t file any more ADA lawsuits in the Central District of California without first getting permission from the court.

Last week, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion (PDF) which upheld the finding in its entirety. The only quirky part of the case was that it was likely that many of the establishments sued by Molski/Frankovich at least technically probably had violated the ADA by not complying with its vague, onerous requirements. But the Ninth Circuit had no problem getting beyond that:

Frivolous litigation is not limited to cases in which a legal claim is entirely without merit. It is also frivolous for a claimant who has some measure of a legitimate claim to make false factual assertions. Just as bringing a completely baseless claim is frivolous, so too a person with a measured legitimate claim may cross the line into frivolous litigation by asserting facts that are grossly exaggerated or totally false.

And for some reason, neither the District Court nor the Ninth Circuit were impressed with Molski’s factual assertions:

However, it is very unlikely that Molski suffered the same injuries, often multiple times in one day, performing the same activities—transferring himself from his wheelchair to the toilet or negotiating accessibility obstacles. Common sense dictates that Molski would have figured out some way to avoid repetitive injury-causing activity; even a young child who touches a hot stove quickly learns to avoid pain by not repeating the conduct.

The Ninth Circuit was not any more complimentary towards Frankovich:

When a client stumbles so far off the trail, we naturally should wonder whether the attorney for the client gave inadequate or improper advice.

The court also found significant that Frankovich may well have broken legal ethics rules by trying to intimidate defendants into settling without hiring lawyers and giving them (bad) legal advice.

This isn’t necessarily the end for Molski/Frankovich. The vexatious litigant order applies only to the federal courts — in fact, only the federal courts in the Central District of California — and does not prevent them from filing suit; it only requires them to seek permission of the court first.

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Serial ADA litigant (and Overlawyered repeat offender) Thomas Frankovich was profiled recently in SF Weekly. Overlawyered readers will be familiar with just about everything in there, from Frankovich’s extortionate tactics to his collaboration with professional plaintiffs like Jarek Molski, to his use of front groups in an attempt to make his litigiousness seem like a public service. (Frankovich, incidentally, does not work in a wheelchair accessible office.)

Matthew Hirsch of LegalPad reports that Frankovich is attempting to rehabilitate his image before the Ninth Circuit rules on whether he, and his fellow traveler Molski, are vexatious litigants:

Starting this month, Frankovich and a major client are offering defendants a deal: “You make your [entrance] doorway accessible, and we will waive any and all claims — including money damages,” he said.

Yes, but Frankovich is a lawyer, so be sure to read the fine print:

Frankovich said his clients who are affiliated with DREES will offer the front door deal if they are visiting only to check out the entrance. But if they spot a door that wheelchair users can’t open, then they go inside to shop and notice more problems, “that becomes something different,” Frankovich said, and the deal is off.

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We’ve had many stories on frequent filer Jared Molski, the vexatious litigant who has filed hundreds of ADA actions in the last five years, and his lawyer Thomas Frankovich, briefly suspended for related ethical violations. Today the Ninth Circuit came down with an opinion in the case of Molski v. M.J. Cable:

Molski, who is paraplegic, sued Cable’s for violations of the
Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and California’s
Unruh Civil Rights Act (“Unruh Act”), alleging that Cable’s
failed to accommodate the disabled. Although Molski provided
uncontradicted evidence that Cable’s did not identify
and remove architectural barriers, the jury returned a verdict
for the restaurant. The District Court denied Molski’s motion
for a new trial, speculating that the jury could have reasonably
concluded that because of Molski’s record of litigiousness, he
was a “business” and not an “individual” entitled to the
ADA’s protections. We reverse.

[...]

On cross examination, Molski acknowledged that: he did not complain
to any of Cable’s employees about his access problems; he
had filed 374 similar ADA lawsuits as of October 8, 2004;
Frankovich had filed 232 of the 374 lawsuits; even more lawsuits
had been filed since that date; Molski and Frankovich
averaged $4,000 for each case that settled; Molski did not pay
any fees to Frankovich; Molski maintained no employment
besides prosecuting ADA cases, despite his possession of a
law degree; Molski’s projected annual income from settlements
was $800,000; Molski executed blank verification
forms for Frankovich to submit with responses to interrogatories;
they had also filed lawsuits against two other restaurants
owned by Cable’s; they had filed a lawsuit against a nearby
restaurant; and Sarantschin obtained up to 95% of his income
from Frankovich’s firm for performing investigations for
ADA lawsuits.

The court acknowledges Molski’s notorious history as a vexatious litigant, but effectively holds that the ADA permits such strategies. That legal holding appears correct (the ability of professional litigants to extort small businesses is a statutory problem with the ADA and the Unruh Act that needs to be solved by the legislature, rather than by courts). But the jury could have chosen to disbelieve Molski’s testimony, given that Molski had the burden of proof and had substantial pecuniary motivation. The Ninth Circuit simply refuses to acknowledge this possibility in reversing the jury’s verdict. (It’s unclear whether testimony the restaurant vice president provided on cross-examination provides sufficient admissions to justify the appellate court’s decision; it is possible that this is the case.) Worse, in dicta in footnote 3, the Ninth Circuit suggests that it may have been improper for the defendants to have cross-examined Molski on his full-time litigation career because such evidence would have been “irrelevant.” (Via Bashman.)

Update: The On Point blog (sadly still missing permalinks, though now with an RSS feed) posts the trial court decision denying a new trial, which is less than absolutely persuasive.

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ADA: “The New Crips”

by Walter Olson on December 7, 2006

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.

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Setbacks for key figures in a prominent disabled-access filing mill:

Two of the attorneys behind an onslaught of ADA lawsuits in California — including at least 20 involving Monterey County restaurants and wineries — have run into serious legal troubles of their own.

Thomas Frankovich, who represented plaintiff Jarek Molski in hundreds of handicapped-access lawsuits over the last five years, was suspended June 19 from practicing in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The six-month suspension came after one judge on the court, Edward Rafeedie, declared Frankovich a “vexatious litigant” and said he would recommend Frankovich for disciplinary action because of his “abusive and predatory litigation practices.”

(Paul Miller, “Indictment, suspension for two ADA lawyers”, Carmel Pine Cone, Jul. 21). outline_ca.gifAlso in June, as was mentioned here in a post at the time (Jul. 5; see also Patterico, Jul. 1), Los Angeles attorney Stephen Yagman, who had represented Frankovich in defense of his ADA practice, was himself indicted on federal charges of tax evasion and bankruptcy fraud. In February 2005, after Judge Rafeedie had threatened Frankovich with sanctions, Yagman had said that “Judge Rafeedie’s mean-spiritedness, his cruelty, and his contempt for civil rights make Hitler look like a humanitarian.” (Paul Miller, “ADA lawyer’s new strategy: Insult the judge”, Feb. 11, 2005). More on Yagman: Jessica Seigel, “Cop griller”, George, Mar. 1998; Patterico, Jun. 3, 2004.

More Carmel Pine Cone coverage of Frankovich and Molski here, here, here and here. Our coverage: Sept. 21 and Dec. 12, 2004, Jan. 8 and Mar. 18, 2005. And for a very different point of view, once again, here’s Mary Johnson, “Jarek Molski’s problem — and I don’t mean access”, Ragged Edge, Oct. 24, 2005, arguing that Frankovich and Molski just aren’t good enough at getting their story out.

AP reports on the thriving business of mass-complaint-filing under the Americans with Disabilities Act, citing examples from Nebraska and Oklahoma as well as more familiar filing-mill locales such as California and Florida. As in the recent California case, however (Jan. 8), some judges are not pleased at what they see:

U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell of Orlando, Fla., noted in a ruling last year that Jorge Luis Rodriguez, a paraplegic, had filed some 200 ADA lawsuits in just a few years, most of them using the same attorney.

“The current ADA lawsuit binge is, therefore, essentially driven by economics — that is the economics of attorney’s fees,” Presnell wrote. He said Rodriguez’s testimony left the impression that he is a “professional pawn in a scheme to bilk attorney’s fees” from those being sued.

(Kevin O’Hanlon, “‘Drive-By Lawsuits’ Raise Business Concern”, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 17).

Speaking of the California saga of Jarek Molski (Sept. 21, Nov. 27, Dec. 12, Jan. 8), last month U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie extended from Molski to his lawyer, Thomas Frankovich, a requirement to obtain court permission before filing more suits under the act, a sanction ordinarily reserved for the most vexatious and troublesome litigants. Reports the Los Angeles Daily Journal:

The Los Angeles judge accused Molski and Frankovich of seeking quick cash settlements by filing a suspicious number of lawsuits in short periods of time. Their suits alleged handicap-access violations such as steep ramps, heavy doors and narrow hallways.

Rafeedie noted that the complaints are identical, right “down to the typos.” He said he believed the injuries alleged by Molski “are often contrived.”…

Rafeedie criticized at length Frankovich’s practice of sending letters to defendant business owners at the outset of litigation, urging them to settle the cases before hiring defense lawyers.

According to Rafeedie, Frankovich told the defendants that they did not have good legal defenses to the disability claims and that their insurance carriers could cover any damages.

Rafeedie said the letters were unethical and misleading.

However, Molski and Frankovich’s side of the case has retained prominent civil-rights attorney Stephen Yagman, and Yagman says well-known Duke lawprof Erwin Chemerinsky is also joining the plaintiff’s team, so who knows where matters are headed next. (John Ryan, “Jurist Finds Lawyer’s Conduct ‘Plainly Unethical’”, Los Angeles Daily Journal, Feb. 8, not online). More: blogger Patterico is among Yagman’s non-admirers (Jun. 3, 2004).

In California last month (see Dec. 12) federal judge Edward Rafeedie ruled that perennial ADA plaintiff Jarek Molski is a “vexatious litigant” who runs a “scheme of systematic extortion” by filing mass disabled-rights complaints; Rafeedie also sharply criticized Molski’s lawyer, Thomas Frankovich. But that doesn’t seem to have cramped the duo’s style much: Frankovich says he intends, on behalf of Molski, to “refile a lawsuit against Peachy Canyon Winery within two weeks in state Superior Court, asking for money because the tasting room didn’t comply with the ADA when he visited in 2003. ‘We’ve got to get compensated for the work we did to fix it,’ Frankovich said. ‘We went out and had an expert inspect it, told them what was wrong and tried to get a settlement.’” The winery’s lawyer says it is now in compliance with ADA standards, but Frankovich says that wasn’t the case in 2003. (Ryan Huff, “Winery will face ADA suit again”, San Luis Obispo Tribune, Jan. 5). (& letter to the editor, Mar. 15 (another frequent Calif. ADA filer)).

In California, U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie has issued an order labeling Jarek Molski of Woodland Hills a “vexatious litigant” because of patterns of abuse in his filing of hundreds of disabled-rights lawsuits against restaurants, bowling alleys, wineries and other businesses in the state (Sept. 21, Nov. 27, etc.). If upheld, the ruling would bar Molski from filing further suits without permission of a judge, who would have to be informed of Rafeedie’s order. “In three separate suits filed last year, for example, Molski, a law school graduate, claimed to have suffered identical injuries at three restaurants, all on May 20, 2003 — ‘highly unusual, to say the least,’” the judge wrote. The use of vexatious-litigant orders is considered rare; among legal professionals interviewed by the L.A. Times, Eve L. Hill, a visiting professor of law at Loyola-Los Angeles and executive director of the Western Law Center for Disability Rights, called Judge Rafeedie’s order “outrageous”, while Stanford law prof Pamela Karlan said it made “perfect sense” in that allowing misuse of the disabilities act risks generating a public backlash against it. (Henry Weinstein, “Disabled Man’s Suits Restricted”, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 11; “Lawsuit spree angers judge”, AP/Monterey County Herald, Dec. 12)(via Kemplog).

Judge Rafeedie also had harsh words for Molski’s attorney, Thomas E. Frankovich of San Francisco, saying he and his law firm had “aided and abetted” Molski’s “abusive litigation practices,” and “issuing an order that Frankovich’s firm and an organization affiliated with Molski called Disability Rights Enforcement Education Services had to come to court and show why they also should not be sanctioned.” Recently Frankovich filed five more lawsuits against businesses in the Central Coast town of Cambria, but this time the plaintiff is Nicole Moss rather than Molski. (Cynthia Neff, “New ADA lawsuits target Cambria”, San Luis Obispo Tribune, Nov. 11).

More from the Santa Maria Times:

A provision of California state law known as the Unruh Act allows Molski to demand $4,000 in damages per violation, per day.

Molski has said in the past that an average settlement is $20,000. He testified in the Los Angeles trial that he personally nets an average of $4,000 per settlement, after paying attorney’s fees, [Bakersfield attorney Craig] Beardsley said.

“There appeared to be 200 active cases ongoing at a time. You could extrapolate that out to $800,000 a year,” Beardsley said.

(Erin Carlyle, “Restaurant ready to fight lawsuit”, Santa Maria Times, Dec. 5).

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Once again it’s happening in central California: “After more than 40 years in business, Roy’s Drive-In in Salinas is closing — in part because the owner can’t afford a lawsuit that accuses him of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Jarek Molski of Woodland Hills in southern California, who uses a wheelchair, “is suing Patterson because he claims the restaurant is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Molski has sued over 200 small businesses for not meeting ADA requirements. …Built in the 1950s, Roy’s Drive-In does not have ramps to access the windows and restrooms, but employees say the business is accessible to all of their customers — including the disabled,” through car-hop service. The restaurant is scheduled to close today. (“Roy’s Drive-In Closing After 40 Years”, TheKSBWChannel.com, Sept. 20; Claudia Melendez, “Roy’s Drive-In to close”, Salinas Californian, Sept. 18). Last year (see Sept. 2, 2003) On Lock Sam, a beloved 105-year-old Chinese restaurant in Stockton, closed after being hit with an access suit.

Complainant Molski has been known to call himself “Sheriff”, and his activities (assisted by lawyer Thomas Frankovich) have caused an uproar lately in central California. His suits repeatedly recycle identical allegations concerning the lack of accessibility of establishments he says he has visited, and demand money over such putative misdeeds such as placing paper towel holders at an incorrect height. Hundreds of residents “filled the Morro Bay council chambers” after Molski hit a dozen local restaurants with suits. (Andrew Masuda, “Residents speak out over ADA lawsuits”, KSBY, Sept. 14). “Customers are calling Molski’s tactics a get-rich-quick scheme,” reported KSBY. Molski is “asking for $4,000 a day until the remodeling is completed,” says Ruth Florence, who owns Ahedo’s Mexican Restaurant in Grover Beach. “That’s ridiculous.” (Carina Corral, “China Bowl owner speaks out”, Sept. 15). More coverage on the same station: Sept. 8, Sept. 9, Sept. 10, Sept. 14.

Nor is Roy’s Drive-In the only casualty: “Owners of The Hungry Fisherman restaurant on Beach Street in Morro Bay say that Molski’s lawsuit caused the establishment to close after 28 years.” (Lindsay Christians, “Disability suits worry Morro Bay”, San Luis Obispo Tribune, Sept. 14). More coverage in the same paper: Sept. 11, Sept. 15, Sept. 15 again, Sept. 16, Sept. 18. San Diego-based lawyer Amy Vandeveld has also represented Molski (Matt Krasnowski, “Flood of ADA lawsuits irks small businesses”, Copley/San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 12). For Morse Mehrban’s recent activities in Fresno, see Jul. 9. For much more about disabled-rights filing mills, see Mar. 9 and links from there, and my City Journal article, “The ADA Shakedown Racket“. Update Dec. 12: judge declares Molski vexatious litigant.

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