Wheelchairs of Fortune

Attorney Tom Frankovich and his disabled clients sue small businesses to make them accessible - and make millions

Molski, 34, a paraplegic who was injured in a motorcycle accident as a teenager, has a law degree, although he has never practiced law. During a cross-examination a few years ago, he admitted he doesn't have a regular job outside of filing lawsuits. In four years, Molski filed more than 500 ADA legal claims, becoming, in Southern California at least, a poster boy for so-called "drive-by" ADA lawsuits. (Frankovich represented Molski in 232 of those cases.) Court records show that he often claims injuries at four or more establishments on the same day.

Typically collecting much more in fees than his clients do in damages, Frankovich unapologetically concedes that the ADA has been very kind to him. His ornate, if disheveled, office is stuffed with original paintings, sculpture, and antiques, including a life-size wooden lion from England that dates from the early 19th century. When he's not in the office, he and his longtime girlfriend split time between a sprawling home in Tiburon, with sweeping views of the North Bay, and a 240-acre ranch in the rolling hills near Red Bluff, Calif., that is home to Frankovich's personal herd of 90 bison.

One rival attorney estimates Frankovich has made $10 million from Molski's cases alone.

Frankovich's law office in a restored Victorian is itself not accessible to the disabled.
Gabriella Hasbun
Frankovich's law office in a restored Victorian is itself not accessible to the disabled.
Frankovich client Patrick Connally is a big fan of the attorney.
Gabriella Hasbun
Frankovich client Patrick Connally is a big fan of the attorney.

"We're not the Kmart of disabilities law," Frankovich says. "We're Neiman Marcus."

Yet, beneath his steel-blue eyes and disarming smile, which adversaries say masks a relentless take-no-prisoners style, there are clearly signs of worry.

"When people don't like what you do, you don't want to give them an opening, justified or not," he says. "And there are clearly people who don't appreciate what I do."

The ADA was hailed as the Emancipation Proclamation for the disabled when it was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. The law's aim is as simple as it is noble: to remove barriers that prevent persons with disabilities from full and equal access to public accommodations.

To that end, ADA lawsuits attack a variety of flaws: doors too heavy for people in wheelchairs to open, restroom stalls that are too narrow or that lack grab bars, wheelchair ramps that are too steep, parking lots without spaces for the disabled, and counters and pay phones that are too high. "It's hard to imagine what life would be like without ADA," says disability rights advocate Evan LeVang, executive director of Independent Living Services for Northern California, based in Chico.

But critics say there's a factor that abusers of such suits in California have learned to exploit: The ADA and the state's Unruh Act are sometimes at odds, if only slightly, in what they require. That makes it "virtually impossible for a business, large or small, to say with absolute confidence that they are 100 percent compliant," says San Diego consultant and attorney David Peters, who advises businesses on how to avoid ADA lawsuits. And, he says, it has resulted in a bonanza for "professional filers," who reap big paydays for even trivial violations.

"No one is arguing that ADA isn't a wonderful law, but in this state you've got a small cadre of lawyers and professional plaintiffs who've gamed the system and are wreaking havoc on small businesses," says former state Assemblyman Tim Leslie, a Sacramento-area Republican who retired last year after 20 years in office.

Leslie was the driving force behind an attempt several years ago to reform the Unruh Act by providing a "right of notice" to business owners to fix ADA problems before plaintiffs could collect damages under state law. It ran into a firestorm of opposition from both disabilities rights groups and trial lawyers.

Advocates for the disabled insist that nearly two decades after ADA's enactment, violators no more deserve the right to a "warning ticket" than do violators of other civil rights laws who practice discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity. While some disability rights leaders privately acknowledge abuses of the law, they are "absolutely paranoid about reform for fear it will turn the clock back on ADA enforcement," Leslie says. Meanwhile, trial lawyers for both plaintiffs and defendants benefit mightily from the status quo.

"The proliferation of these lawsuits really is a situation that's out of control," says Lisbeth West, a Sacramento attorney who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the California Restaurant Association last year in support of sanctions a federal judge imposed on Frankovich.

Even some in the disability community agree.

"I don't have a problem with what [Frankovich] and others like him are doing as I do know how they go about it," says Kim Blackseth of Oakland, who consults with businesses on ADA compliance, and who is a quadriplegic.

Blackseth says hyper-litigants of the sort Frankovich represents have stirred resentment against the disabled, and cites himself as Exhibit A. After showing up to do some consulting for a Central Coast restaurant two years ago, Blackseth was accosted in the parking lot by several men who he says mistook him for one of Frankovich's clients. They tossed his measuring tape and notebook on the ground and warned him to get out of town.

"There's definitely a backlash out there, and it's serious," he says.

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