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Rolling Thunder

An unorganized army of the aggrieved is trying to force businesses to comply with state law and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Woodland Hills' Jarek Molski also happens to be getting rich at it.

October 02, 2005|Matthew Heller | Matthew Heller last wrote for the magazine about IHOP Chief Executive Julia Stewart.

Cable's restaurant in woodland hills is a comfortable neighborhood coffee shop with a loyal clientele, the type of place where the regulars eat four or five times a week and the waitresses call you "Honey." Patrons sit at green vinyl booths under faux wood beams that give the restaurant a kitschy ambience. The $7.95 fried chicken special is the signature dish on the multi-page menu.

On a recent morning, the patrons included a man with an oxygen tank. When a woman in a wheelchair arrived with an attendant, the restaurant manager opened the door for them. "We get handicapped people here all the time," said the owner, Tony Dalkas. "If they have any complaints, they just let the manager know."

In January 2003, Jarek Molski visited Cable's. A paraplegic since a motorcycle accident in 1988, when he was 18, he lives just a few miles from the restaurant. He didn't leave a satisfied customer. Cable's, he alleged in a lawsuit filed in July 2003, had discriminated against him under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Among the alleged transgressions, its men's room door required more than five pounds of pressure to open, the paper towel dispenser in the restroom was higher than 40 inches and the height of the toilet seat was not between 17 inches and 19 inches.

Dalkas, who styles his gray hair in a pompadour and has owned Cable's for 29 years, describes being sued as a "nightmare"--a description much like those offered by proprietors of the many other establishments that Molski has similarly sued. The ADA, Dalkas insists, was "not intended to be used the way Molski is using it."

The Polish-born Molski, now 35, is a self-appointed enforcer of the 15-year-old law--or, as he prefers to call himself, "The Sheriff." What may seem technical arcana to some are civil rights violations to him. "It's almost as if I was an African American and they said, 'You know what? This place is not for individuals like yourself,' " he told KCBS-TV Channel 2 last year.

Since early 2003, Molski has filed more than 350 lawsuits against restaurants, wineries, bowling alleys, banks and assorted retail establishments that he alleges have failed to remove barriers to disabled access as required by federal law. A large number of the cases come from his trips to California's Central Coast, with businesses in just about every community from Camarillo to Carmel being affected. After visiting sleepy Morro Bay in spring 2004, for example, he sued a dozen restaurants ranging from fish houses to the Foster's Freeze, as well as the local Chevron station.

Outspoken Venice civil rights lawyer Stephen Yagman, a recent addition to Molski's legal team, believes Molski has "done something extraordinary. . . . You have a private individual increasing compliance with laws that benefit disabled people. Violations of the ADA have been corrected" as a result of Molski's efforts, he says.

Business owners, their lawyers and government officials claim that Molski is running an extraordinary scam, using strong-arm legal tactics to pressure businesses into paying him off. According to attorneys for businesses sued by Molski, he has pocketed an average of $4,000 a case from settlements, often from insurance companies looking for the cheapest resolution. At least 55% of Molski's cases have been settled, and extrapolating from those numbers, Molski would have had a total income since 2003 of $770,000--not bad for someone without a job.

"It's a cottage industry," says Craig N. Beardsley, a Bakersfield attorney who represents Cable's.

In December, a senior federal judge in Los Angeles apparently vindicated the critics. Granting a motion filed by a Solvang restaurant, Edward Rafeedie ruled that Molski is a "vexatious litigant," the polite legal term for a pest, whose suits "were filed as part of a scheme of systematic extortion, designed to harass and intimidate business owners into agreeing to cash settlements." The ruling means that a judge will vet any future federal cases that Molski wishes to file in Los Angeles. Molski's lead attorney, Thomas E. Frankovich of San Francisco, will appeal. "If it's extortion to compel people to follow the law, that's exactly the way the law is written," he insists.

But Molski, who had largely been operating in the shadows, now has to cope with the glare of publicity, the growing defiance of defendants and even the hostility of other members of the disabled community. "The Sheriff" has become an unwanted man. Said a disabled Central Coast resident at a meeting of the Morro Bay City Council: "This guy is doing more damage for the handicapped than he's doing good."

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