Cracking Down on ADA Lawsuit Abuse

I was a White House staff member when George H.W. Bush was in the Oval Office. I remember well when he signed the

Photo courtesy of man pikin, flickr

Americans With Disabilities Act into law, insisting that it would not “lead endlessly to litigation.”

Not in his wildest nightmares did Bush envision a serial litigant like Alfredo Garcia. The illegal immigrant (no, he’s not even a U.S. citizen) has filed more than 600 lawsuits against mostly mom and pop businesses in Southern California claiming ADA violations.

A convicted felon, Garcia hasn’t had a proper job in years. Nevertheless, he has made a pretty good living for himself shaking down small businesses, many of which happen to be owned by immigrants just like him (except that they are not professional plaintiffs).

Indeed, Garcia has testified in court that he usually makes about $4,000 a case. In 2008, that added up to $125,000 in legal settlements, according to an investigative report that aired last week on KABC-TV in Los Angeles.

Yet Garcia has claimed under oath that he made only $16,500 in settlements in 2008. He low-balled his earnings so that he would qualify for fee waivers on his hundreds of ADA lawsuits.

Each case should have cost the serial litigant a $300 filing fee. But instead of paying nearly $195,000 for his more than 600 ADA lawsuits, Garcia got away with paying nothing by pleading poverty.

The trial lawyer behind the serial scammer

Of course, Garcia wouldn’t have been able to generate so many lawsuits, and wouldn’t have been able to obtain waivers on all them, without legal assistance. And that was provided by his long-time trial lawyer Morse Mehrban, who earns a 50 percent contingency fee on all of his client’s ADA litigation.

In fact, ADA litigation makes up three-quarters of Mehrban’s legal practice, he told KABC. So prolific is the trial lawyer that his firm accounted for 30 percent of ADA lawsuits filed in L.A. County in 2010.

Mehrban sees nothing wrong with shaking down small immigrant-owned dry cleaners or nail salons. “Isn’t every lawsuit technically extortion?” he told KABC.

Moreover, Mehrban thinks that Garcia and the other ADA clients (he represents a couple dozen at a time) are somehow performing a public service with their litigation.

“I’m actually encouraged by it,” he said, “because it shows that people are doing something. They are standing up for their rights.”

Well, the only “right” Mehrban’s clients are standing up for is the dubious right to file spurious ADA claims not for the purpose of fighting discrimination against the disabled –- which was the law’s original intent -– but to earn themselves money for nothing.

Finally, good news on shakedown suits

220px-Grateful_Dead_-_Shakedown_StreetGov. Jerry Brown last year enacted a measure, SB 1186, intended to rein in ADA shakedown suits and discourage serial litigants like Garcia. It reduced potential damages to as little as $1,000 from the previous minimum of $4,000, but it posed no real deterrent to ADA plaintiffs.

The real game changer was not a piece of legislation but a California Supreme Court ruling this past December in which the justices held, for the first time, that plaintiffs who lose ADA lawsuits are liable for the defendant’s attorney’s fees.

That court ruling scared the bejeebers out of even a serial litigant like Garcia — so much so that he has sworn off of filing any new ADA lawsuits.

(Joseph Perkins is an opinion columnist and editorial writer for the Orange County Register. Originally posted on CalWatchdog.)