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COLUMN ONE

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

"They're bottom feeders -- both of them," Rogal said of Mundy and Mehrban. "I really feel strongly about this, about these kinds of guerrilla tactics. It's shameful, especially in this day and age when people are struggling to make a living."

Rogal accuses Mehrban of singling out immigrant business owners. He vows to defeat Mundy's suit against his Iranian-born client, then sue Mehrban for malicious prosecution.

But Mehrban isn't the only attorney making his living from ADA suits. Lynn Hubbard III of Chico estimates he has filed 1,500 suits over the past decade, settling out of court 95% of the time. The Irvine law firm of Azimy-Nathan has filed at least 400 suits on behalf of six disabled clients over the past five years.

In San Francisco, attorney Thomas E. Frankovich handled many of serial litigant Jarek Molski's 400 suits before a federal judge in Los Angeles barred them from bringing more legal actions without court permission.

It was in Solvang, the faux-Danish village in the Santa Barbara wine country, that the litigious Molski met his Waterloo.

Rather than settling for $2,000 or $3,000, the owners of the Mandarin Touch restaurant -- which serves waffles by day and Chinese food to the dinner crowd -- persuaded U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie to declare the Polish-born law school graduate a "vexatious litigant" and bar him from filing more suits in the seven-county Central District of California.

Molski, who has used a wheelchair since a 1988 motorcycle accident, appealed Rafeedie's order to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court without success.

Even so, "this issue is not dead. It's coming back. There are already others stepping into his shoes," said Frankovich, who faces disciplinary action before the State Bar of California.

Frankovich, Mehrban and Hubbard say lawsuits are the only means of enforcing compliance.

"It doesn't make you a vexatious litigant just because you're doing good work for the disabled," Frankovich said.

Tom Hagerman is coming around to that way of thinking.

The Pasadena native descends gingerly from his white Dodge van, grimacing as he slowly lurches the length of the parking lot behind Shoppers Lane to show how far he has to walk from the disabled parking spaces to his weekly rendezvous at Hamburger Hamlet.

A 61-year-old retired furniture manufacturer with multiple sclerosis, Hagerman walks with a cane but doesn't yet need a wheelchair -- a limited-mobility problem often overlooked in planning accommodations for the disabled, he said.

Hagerman would like to resolve his problems with the city without having to file a lawsuit. But he's come to regard the Mr. Nice Guy approach as a failure.

"I have to admit I've gotten more sympathetic about these people whose first inclination is to sue," said Hagerman, who has been writing city officials for a year to complain about the parking layout behind the South Lake Avenue retail strip and in several municipal garages.

The city responded to his point about poor arrangement of the north lot by properly scattering the handicapped spots in the south lot when it was reconfigured earlier this year. But officials haven't budged from their refusal to fix the north lot, Hagerman said.

"Both lots are in compliance. They have the required number of handicapped spaces," said Bill Bortfeld, Pasadena parking manager. He said the changes sought by Hagerman aren't possible because the city must provide safe paths of travel from the disabled parking section to the sidewalk, and only a small number of paths can cross the lane carrying incoming traffic.

Hagerman has come to believe city officials are being spiteful because he complained.

"It's almost as if when I made them comply [on the south lot], they were saying, 'we'll do it but we're going to put them in a place where you can't use them anyway,' " Hagerman said. He is now looking for a lawyer.

Mundy has learned the lingo of the successful suer. He talks of "instances of noncompliance" rather than things out of reach. He has his own definition of what constitutes "reasonable accommodation" if he needs help from a business owner to open a door or turn on a faucet. He can identify "readily achievable" fixes for defective structures and offers a "courtesy service" of an ADA compliance inspection to businesses that want to be proactive, he said.

Physically fit from the occasional game of wheelchair tennis, Mundy's upper body is strong enough that he can lift himself and his wheelchair over short steps. It is a skill he demonstrates for dramatic effect when he encounters obstacles, such as the raised plazas outside high-rises along Wilshire Boulevard or stairs to a second-floor cash register at a local car wash.

"Sometimes I slide out of my wheelchair and drag myself up the steps, then pull my chair behind me," Mundy said with an impish smile.

In a diary he has begun keeping in the third person, he casts himself as an action figure serving others in need.

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