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Users of Assistance Dogs Leave a Trail of Lawsuits

A woman, her kin and associates have accused inns, eateries and others of discrimination. Some defendants see a scheme.

July 10, 2005|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

Erma L. Miller struck her first blow for disability rights in 1997. She sued Coco's after one of its restaurants refused to serve her when she showed up with an assistance dog.

Coco's settled the case, but Miller was just getting started. The Marriott hotel chain and a string of McDonald's restaurants, among other defendants, would soon feel her wrath.

The 64-year-old Moorpark woman is behind a stack of multimillion-dollar lawsuits accusing business establishments of illegally refusing to accommodate disabled people who use assistance, or service, dogs. Miller and various relatives and associates have filed at least 21 discrimination claims in Los Angeles and San Diego, typically charging hotels, restaurants and others with "despicable" violations of civil rights laws, according to court records.

The targets of these lawsuits deny the charges and say that behind the lofty rhetoric hangs the odor of a scam.

They cite one case in which a federal judge found Miller's tale of outrageous mistreatment to be "totally fabricated" and "nothing more than a sham."

Also raising their suspicions is Miller's practice of providing Rottweilers to other people, who took the dogs to businesses, got bounced and filed lawsuits.

Then there's the involvement of Miller's notorious ex-husband, Lynn Boyd Stites.

Stites is a disbarred lawyer who served a federal prison term for masterminding "the Alliance" insurance fraud scheme, which triggered one of the largest prosecutions of attorneys in U.S. history.

Stites became Miller's co-plaintiff in two disability cases after his release from prison in 2001. He claimed that when Miller and her dog were refused service, he was snubbed too.

But his involvement goes deeper, some defendants say. Good Nite Inns Inc., which recently settled one case, claimed that Stites supplied dogs to people and paid them to visit targeted businesses with the aim of contriving lawsuits. "Stites is the mastermind behind this and a series of other dog discrimination cases which are totally fabricated," according to court papers filed by the company.

Albert Davis, one of those who sued Good Nite Inns, said in a deposition that Stites was a member of the plaintiffs' legal team. Davis' lawyer, Samuel G. Jackson, contradicted his client, telling The Times, "I don't even know what the guy [Stites] looks like." Jackson accused Good Nite Inns in a court filing of trying "to besmirch the parties by spinning a tale" of Stites' involvement.

Jackson, who also represents Miller, said in an interview that she "is out there doing good, crusading and getting change." She believes that disabled people are entitled to "the same treatment the general public gets -- and she's not going to settle for less."

Miller and Stites declined interview requests.

Miller is no stranger to courtroom battles. She once sued the Internal Revenue Service for $182 million -- and won $1,000 -- for improper disclosure of taxpayer information. A federal appeals court rejected her bid for more, saying she had tried "to convert a proverbial molehill into Ft. Knox."

The discrimination cases have been a real family affair. Miller, who has remained close to Stites despite their divorce in 1989, has been a plaintiff in at least 11 cases -- including two she filed against lockups where Stites was serving time. Because of an inherited condition called Charcot Marie Tooth syndrome, which can weaken the muscles in the arms and legs, Miller says she needs a service dog or wheelchair to get around.

Miller's 90-year-old parents also served as plaintiffs in some cases before their deaths about three years ago. A substantial part of the research and paralegal work has been done by sons Aaron and Brandt Stites, both law school graduates who have passed the California bar exam but have not been admitted for reasons State Bar officials will not discuss.

Aaron Stites, 28, who has the same condition as his mother, is a plaintiff too. He has sued Marriott, claiming that several of its inns in California, Kansas and Ohio would not rent him a room because of his service dog. He also sued McDonald's after allegedly being booted from restaurants in Encino and New York's Times Square. That case ended in an undisclosed settlement.

He also has a pending claim against Hilton Hotels Corp., as well as one against the Great Western Forum stemming from an incident at a Los Angeles Kings hockey game six years ago. He declined to be interviewed.

More recently, the litigation has morphed to include claims of racial discrimination, with Miller serving as a co-plaintiff or chief witness for three African Americans in lawsuits against restaurants and hotels. Their claim: The establishments served Miller, who is white, when she came in with a dog, but would not do the same for them.

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