Wheelchairs of Fortune

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

But Frankovich isn't buying it.

He sees non-ADA compliers as "scofflaws" who merit no sympathy. "Lawsuits are the only language these people understand," he says. "Unless you pound them into submission, nothing will ever change."


Owner Hussein Kajouee at the Hyde Out, his bar at the foot of Nob Hill.
Gabriela Hasbun
Owner Hussein Kajouee at the Hyde Out, his bar at the foot of Nob Hill.
Jose Garcia at his Rancho Grande restaurant in Napa. No one there recalls seeing the Frankovich client who filed a claim against him.
Gabriella Hasbun
Jose Garcia at his Rancho Grande restaurant in Napa. No one there recalls seeing the Frankovich client who filed a claim against him.

The overwhelming majority of the people Frankovich's clients sue settle out of court for amounts that typically range from $20,000 to $35,000, thus avoiding the expensive risk of defending themselves at trial and being stuck with both theirs and the plaintiff's legal tab under the law.

Cable's Restaurant in suburban Los Angeles is among the rare breed of defendants who refused to settle with Frankovich and his star client, Molski. The company's decision to fight Frankovich and Molski exposed their practice like never before. The fallout from the case continues to haunt Frankovich's legal career.

Molski sued the restaurant in 2003 after he had gone to the eatery with his grandmother and claimed to have found a litany of ADA violations. In preparing for a trial against Molski, Cable's attorney, Craig Beardsley, gained access to hundreds of settlement documents revealing that while Molski has made a small fortune from filing ADA claims, Frankovich has become even richer. "In a typical $20,000 settlement, what we found was that Molski walks away with $4,000 and Frankovich takes almost all the rest. We're talking millions [of dollars] involving just this one client. You do the math."

Cable's prevailed at trial after Beardsley put forth a novel argument: that Molski had brought so many ADA lawsuits that he should be considered a business, not an individual, and thus is not qualified to collect damages under the state's Unruh Act. (An appeals court reversed the decision, and the outcome remains unresolved.)

But it was in an unusually blunt (and exhaustive) 2005 edict in another case that U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie, by declaring Molski a "vexatious litigant," all but put an end to what critics belittled as Molski's "reign of litigation terror" in the sprawling federal judicial district that stretches from Los Angeles to halfway up the Central Coast. Molski was prohibited from filing any more federal lawsuits in the jurisdiction without Rafeedie's approval.

But the judge was arguably even harsher with Frankovich. He accused him of teaming up with Molski and other "serial filers" to file a barrage of "cookie-cutter" lawsuits that were essentially identical "down to the typos." Frankovich had engaged in "a pattern of unethical behavior designed ultimately to extort money from businesses and their insurance companies," the judge said. He decried the lawyer's tactics as "bordering on extortionate shysterism" and prohibited the Frankovich firm from representing clients in the Central District without the judge's permission.

Rafeedie then referred Frankovich to the State Bar of California for possible disciplinary action.

Frankovich appealed the ruling, and a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in April. But Frankovich is nervous. His personal attorney assured him that his appearance before the panel went well, but he isn't sure. "I wasn't comfortable with it; they kept pounding me."

If Rafeedie's condemnation stands, it means Frankovich will likely continue to be barred from involvement in any federal cases in the expansive Central District without the judge's express consent. But he's really worried about something else — that an affirmative appeals court decision could prompt the state bar to impose sanctions, maybe even suspend him.

From a practical standpoint, though, the edict appears to have had little effect — at least thus far. Although he no longer represents Molski (he attributes their split to "philosophical differences" unrelated to Rafeedie's action), Frankovich continues to bring ADA suits on behalf of others in federal jurisdictions elsewhere in California, including the Northern District that includes San Francisco, where Rafeedie's order has no bearing.

And the clients, he insists, continue to pour in.

"People with disabilities tend to be fighters," he says. "They see me attacking the establishment, and if everybody seems to be out after me, then they figure I must be doing something right."


Patrick Connally is one of Frankovich's most outspoken defenders.

As host of a weekly public affairs show for persons with disabilities that airs on KUSF, the University of San Francisco radio station, Connally, 57, who is a paraplegic, occupies a unique position to sound off on ADA matters. "He's someone at the forefront of the disability rights struggle," Connally says of Frankovich. In recent years, lawyers from Frankovich's office have turned up as guests on his program, as has Frankovich himself on at least two occasions.

Connally praises the lawyer as a civil rights crusader and denigrates many in the business community — whom he sees as largely resistant to disability rights issues. A self-described visual artist and self-employed events programmer, he has sat on a KQED advisory board, and back in 1992, was a phone bank coordinator and liaison to the disabled in the Bay Area during Bill Clinton's first campaign for the White House.

But his claim to fame is as the head of Disability Rights Enforcement Education Services, or DREES, a nonprofit entity he founded a dozen years ago, and which he directs from his home in Marin County.

Its detractors see DREES as little more than a Frankovich front group, something Connally vehemently denies. Although its stated mission is to promote disability rights education, the group appears to have little to show for it. He concedes that it's a struggle just to keep its modest Web site up and running.

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