Wheelchairs of Fortune

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

Yet there is one area in which DREES enjoys an indisputably high profile: as co-plaintiff in practically all of Frankovich's lawsuits.

Although defense attorneys often succeed in getting judges to remove DREES from cases against their clients on grounds that it has no legal standing to sue, they say DREES's initial presence nonetheless serves to add a patina of credibility to Frankovich's legal efforts. "It looks good on a [legal] brief, or at least he must think it does," says an attorney who has represented several clients sued by Frankovich.

Judge Rafeedie, in his excoriation of Frankovich and Molski, offered a similar appraisal of DREES, saying that the group's inclusion in Frankovich lawsuits appeared to be an attempt to provide "an aura of legitimacy" to what he described as "predatory litigation" for the purpose of encouraging settlements.

Craig Beardsley, the Bakersfield lawyer who got access to Frankovich's settlement records, says that in cases where DREES manages to remain as co-plaintiff, it collects $1,000 or less from settlements, a figure that Connally doesn't dispute. "DREES doesn't derive much money from Mr. Frankovich," Connally says.

But as a frequent filer of ADA lawsuits, Connally has a relationship with Frankovich that extends beyond DREES. Court records show that since 1998, he has filed at least 70 ADA claims with Frankovich as his attorney, including six since February of this year. He and the lawyer met by chance at a gathering in Marin County in the mid-'90s at a mutually beneficial time. Connally had just started DREES, and Frankovich had just retooled his practice to focus on disabilities law.

Among their first triumphs together were a string of settlements in cases brought against merchants in San Rafael, where Connally lives. That was followed by a litigation victory in neighboring Tiburon, where Frankovich maintains a home. Besides Connally, the effort there involved several other Frankovich clients, including the late Ed Roberts, the disability barrier-breaking former UC Berkeley student considered the father of the independent living movement. After Frankovich and his clients went after more than two dozen of the town's merchants for accessibility shortcomings, the city became involved and ultimately reconfigured Tiburon's main shopping thoroughfare.

Connally is proud of his role as a disabilities advocate, and bristles at the suggestion that he makes a living from it.

"I make a little bit of income, but I don't do it for the money. When I find violations, I send people letters. And if they fix the problems, I don't proceed [with a lawsuit.]"

But those sued by Connally tell a different story.

"The only letter I got was a notice telling me that I was being sued," says Jose Garcia, who owns a converted '50s root beer drive-in in Napa that he turned into a Mexican restaurant called Rancho Grande. After claiming to find several alleged ADA deficiencies in the eatery's restroom nearly a year earlier, Connally filed suit in February. The lawsuit was preceded by a letter from Frankovich demanding $41,000 to settle.

"I don't have that kind of money," says Garcia, a Colombian immigrant and part-time minister who says he struggled to put two daughters through the University of Southern California "only with the help of a lot of financial aid."

His lawyer and Frankovich are negotiating.

As for Connally, "If he's even been here, we wouldn't know. He never came to us saying there was a problem. We've never laid eyes on the man."

From his perch at the Hyde Out, a neighborhood bar at Hyde and California streets, owner Hussein Kajouee knows how it feels to be sued by a Frankovich client. "Once they get hold of you, they don't let you go," quips the affable 63-year-old Iranian immigrant, who bought the bar, at the foot of Nob Hill, 14 years ago.

The man who sued him, quadriplegic Marshall Loskot, visited the bar only once — in February 2004. He was there barely long enough to go to the restroom, which he quickly deemed too cramped for his wheelchair and unable to pass ADA muster.

Two years and $34,000 later, Kajouee settled, deciding against chancing that a jury would accept his argument that replacing the restroom in a century-old building wasn't "readily achievable" (in other words, that it would cost too much), an exception to ADA compliance for older structures carved out under the law.

Had he lost at trial, besides a judgment, he would have also faced paying Loskot's legal fees as well as his own.

"I had to move on," he says.

As it turns out, that February day was a big one for Loskot, who operates a demonstration herb farm and teaches disabled people how to garden in the rural community of Platina, not far from Redding. He swept into San Francisco for less than 24 hours and netted no fewer than four ADA claims. Besides the lawsuit against Kajouee's bar, he brought nearly identical claims (including the same alleged injuries) against two restaurants and a hotel.

A review of court records shows Loskot claimed to have had not one, but two lunches — one at the Washington Square Bar & Grill in North Beach; the other at the Golden Horse Restaurant, a Chinese place next door to the Hyde Out.

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