Willits, Ukiah businesses face new legal threats over disabled access

A California attorney who has made a name for himself suing thousands of businesses and governments across the state over alleged violations of federal disability access law now is taking aim at enterprises in Willits and Ukiah.

Thomas Frankovich and his disabled Willits client have filed ?eight separate federal discrimination lawsuits affecting more than two dozen Mendocino County businesses since late December, accusing the defendants of failing to provide adequate access for disabled people as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The lawsuits affect restaurants in Willits and Ukiah, a Willits book store, a Ukiah car dealership and a Willits strip mall that contains more than a dozen shops and restaurants.

“The sheriff’s in town and we’re going to clean it up. It’s that simple,” Frankovich said in an interview on Wednesday, the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Frankovich, who has law offices in San Francisco and Chico, has built a reputation among disability access advocates as a dogged legal activist, responsible for filing more than 2,000 ADA lawsuits. His practice has also earned him critics in the worlds of business and government, plus a reprimand by the federal court system in California and formal review by the State Bar.

Businesses throughout Willits have been scrambling to comply with access requirements in the face of the legal threats. For some, the repairs have been costly.

Ace Copy and Shipping Center and the building’s owner have spent some $30,000 in repairs and Frankovich is expected to seek another $40,000 to settle the case, according to Willits attorney Chris Neary, who represents three businesses being sued, including the print shop.

“It’s all about the money,” said Martin Rodriguez, who operates Ace Copy & Shipping with his wife, Willits City Councilwoman Saprina Rodriguez. The building owner is bearing most of the costs, he said. But for a small business, every expenditure counts, he said.

Frankovich’s client, Willits resident Jeanette Brown, 78, who uses a wheelchair, said she tried unsuccessfully for years to get area businesses to improve disabled access before contacting Frankovich last year.

It took her 10 years of letter writing to convince the health clinic she frequents to bring its bathroom up to ADA standards and local businesses ignored her requests altogether, she said.

Brown, who suffers from kidney disease, recalled failed efforts to find a public bathroom she could use.

“I wet my pants on the bus coming home. That’s humiliating,” she said. It’s just one of many obstacles and problems people with disabilities face on a daily basis, she said.

“I just decided I wanted to do something to help other people,” Brown said.

Several Willits businesses, including a sushi restaurant, have avoided lawsuits by fixing their problems right after receiving warning letters, Frankovich said. Freshly painted disabled parking spaces and signs are now visible throughout the city.

He “is the talk of the town. Everyone’s fearful,” said Neary, the local attorney.

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, transportation and telecommunications in addition to public accommodations.

It includes highly specific regulations that direct the placement and size of disabled parking spaces; the distance between a toilet and a safety bar; the width of doorways and the angle of access ramps.

That specificity allows litigants to sue unsuspecting businesses who believe they’re already providing disabled access, said Willits City Manager Adrienne Moore.

Last week, Moore emailed warnings to the community that Frankovich - driving his red Black Butte Bison Ranch truck - and his investigator were cruising the city, apparently in search of ADA violations. The city, which had ADA renovations underway, has since received a claim from Frankovich alleging access violations at the police department.

“No one that I know of is opposed to compliance but this attorney is preying on our town with no regard to the effect these predatory lawsuits will have on our already vulnerable town,” Moore wrote in her email to business and community members.

The legal threats come as Willits, a city of fewer than 5,000 people, weathers a period of economic transition and uncertainty.

Downtown businesses are struggling financially from the opening late last year of the Willits bypass, which shunts Highway 101 traffic around the city, Moore said in an interview. Sales tax revenue in the city has declined an estimated 35 percent since the bypass opened, she said.

ADA cases can be expensive, but also an effective way of ensuring that disabled people have access to stores and restaurants like everyone else, Neary said.

“Enforcement is necessary. Just how it’s done is never pretty,” Neary said.

He said he doesn’t agree with Frankovich’s method of enforcing the ADA through scattershot litigation. But “you can’t disagree with his right to do it,” he said.

Frankovich was reprimanded in 2005 by a U.S. District court judge during an ADA case filed on behalf of a client who had sued hundreds of businesses. The judge barred the client from filing further cases in California’s Central District federal court and required Frankovich to seek permission before doing so. He also referred Frankovich to the State Bar of California for investigation.

The State Bar in 2008 brought disciplinary charges against Frankovich alleging multiple acts of misconduct involving his ADA practice, including “scheming to extort settlements, seeking to mislead a judge and committing acts of moral turpitude.”

He was cleared of all of those charges but sanctioned on a non-ADA charge that he improperly communicated with a represented party in a foreign jurisdiction. The State Bar Court recommended public reprimand and ordered Frankovich to take ethics classes.

In his ruling, Judge Pat McElroy noted: “The aggressive pursuit of litigation involving violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act has become a highly contested area of law. Attorneys, such as respondent Thomas Edward Frankovich, who seek out and profit from violations of the ADA are at the center of this controversy. Some see these attorneys as champions of the disabled, while others view them as unscrupulous pariahs.”

According to the Center for Legal Policy, just the ADA payouts related to alleged employment discrimination filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission exceeds $100 million annually.

Legislators have passed laws aimed at limiting ADA lawsuits but their numbers continue to rise, according to the report.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473. On Twitter?@MendoReporter.

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