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.