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Disabled man's crusade a bane to business owners

If your counters are too high or parking spaces too narrow, beware of disabled activist Thomas Mundy. He and others like him say lawsuits are the only way to enforce ADA compliance.

January 05, 2009|Carol J. Williams

Lingering fog shrouds the Venice boardwalk midday as Thomas Mundy rolls past ice cream vendors, T-shirt shacks and falafel stands, a discerning eye trained on the warrens of beach-themed kitsch and quick nibbles.

He's not looking for leather thong pendants or Jamaican trinkets in memory of Bob Marley, or to commune with the manic crowd of in-line skaters and street artists.

Mundy is trolling for barriers to his patronage -- a threshold too high for his wheelchair, a parking lot with blue-striped access lanes narrower than eight feet, a public restroom where the coat hook on the back of the door, if there is one, is above his reach.

One fighter in a burgeoning army of crusaders for disabled access, Mundy says he has filed more than 150 lawsuits in 18 months demanding damages from small businesses in violation of the exacting requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Suing for ADA noncompliance has become a cottage industry for dozens of disabled Californians who have taken on the role of freelance enforcers of an often ignored federal statute. They secure piecemeal correction of offending premises and often enrich themselves and their lawyers in the process.

"I don't go looking for problems. I just notice them as I go around," said Mundy, who moved to Los Angeles last year from Hawaii. It was in Honolulu that he learned the intricacies of the ADA as a building department employee, a de facto apprenticeship for his new career as a serial litigant.

Mundy, a beefy ex-contractor with longish brown hair and a daily routine of dining out and enjoying the ocean, spies an 8-inch concrete platform on which a woman in a dark-green sari has set up a table of sunglasses under an awning.

"There's nothing in there that I'd want to buy but this might be of interest to a judge," 50-year-old Mundy, a paraplegic since a 1988 motorcycle accident in Maryland, observed with a knowing air.

Divorced and jobless except for the self-assigned ADA work, Mundy won't say how much he has earned by filing lawsuits demanding five-figure sums then settling out of court with business owners keen to escape a costlier defense. Attorneys representing those he has sued estimate Mundy's proceeds at about $300,000 in little more than a year, and a similar sum for his attorney, Morse Mehrban, from Mundy's cases alone.

"You basically have to take the law into your own hands," said Mehrban, whose dozen or so disabled clients provide 90% of his practice. "The ADA was enacted with the idea that the mere fear of litigation would shock people into compliance. But it hasn't."

California is one of the few states to put teeth into the disabilities law by mandating penalties from businesses or government entities whose premises impede the disabled.

"Confined to a wheelchair in California?" Mehrban asks potential clients on his website, www.mehrban.com. "You may be entitled to $1,000 each time you can't use something at a business because of your disability."

If someone in a wheelchair has been doing laundry once a month for a year at a laundromat where the paper-towel dispenser is too high, "you're entitled to $12,000," the lawyer advertises.

Serial litigants have cut a swath across the state, targeting family-run restaurants, boutiques, bowling alleys and wineries.

"He might as well have had a gun and asked me for $1,000 when he came in," Paul Venetos, owner of Anaheim's Varsity Burgers, said of an April visit by Mundy that led to a lawsuit over a condiments counter that was half an inch too high.

The burger joint's security camera recorded Mundy wheeling in, looking around for a few minutes then leaving without perusing a menu or attempting to order, Venetos said. He believes Mundy came in only to look for a chink in his ADA armor.

"This hurts their cause," Venetos said of the disabled suing proprietors who are making good-faith efforts to meet ADA standards. "It's a bad thing to say, but you feel wary when you see someone come in who is handicapped, someone you've never seen before. You wonder if they are going to try to do something that is basically extortion."

Long Beach attorney Ted Batsakis has had four clients sued for ADA infractions over the past few months. He calls the litigation "an old Chicago-style shakedown." Like his clients, Batsakis said the law would be more just if it gave businesses 30 or 60 days to fix the problems.

Absent that warning period, attorneys often advise their clients to pay the litigants a few thousand dollars to drop the suit, even if they believe they haven't violated the law.

But some attorneys are less willing to capitulate.

When Mundy sued Culver City gas station owner Azizedin Taghizadeh in September, demanding $1,000 and attorney fees for each alleged violation encountered during a July 18 visit, attorney Bert Rogal decided to push back.

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