Facing possible suspension from the California State Bar, attorney Tom Frankovich — notorious for his serial lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act on behalf of clients who use wheelchairs — has turned his attention to San Francisco with a vengeance.
At least 30 restaurants and other mom-and-pop businesses — many of them clustered in North Beach and along Clement Street in the Inner Richmond — have been sued by clients represented by Franko-vich since the first of the year, court records show.
"He's on the warpath, and a lot of his victims are feeling powerless to do anything about it," says Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district includes North Beach. "I'm all for the ADA, but what Frankovich does is an abuse of the law."
Frankovich has been the attorney of record in hundreds of ADA lawsuits statewide under the landmark civil rights law. Critics say his stable of about a dozen clients consists of "serial filers" who've made a career of suing small business owners [see "Wheelchairs of Fortune," SF Weekly, July 25, 2007]. In 2005, a federal judge declared him a vexatious litigant and barred him from bringing cases in the Central District of California. Judge Edward Rafeedie also reported Frankovich to the State Bar.
A State Bar prosecutor has proposed that Frankovich be suspended from practicing law for two years. But settlement talks between Frankovich and the bar have broken down. Frankovich insists he's done nothing wrong and will fight sanctions. He has acquired the services of noted constitutional lawyer Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at UC Irvine. A State Bar trial is set for August 22.
Meanwhile, the wave of Frankovich-related legal actions in the city, where the flamboyant and characteristically defiant lawyer has long maintained his legal practice, has stirred outrage among merchants, who've organized to fight back.
"We're mobilizing to raise people's consciousness — to at least let people know that he's out there and that he's coming," says Kathleen Dooley, who heads the North Beach Merchants Association. The city's Small Business Commission will devote the entire agenda of its July 14 meeting at City Hall to the issue of how merchants can protect themselves from ADA lawsuits, she says. Nearly 50 business owners — many of whom have received summonses from Frankovich — showed up at a meeting last month in North Beach to strategize about what Dooley refers to as the "Frankovich invasion."
"We want to be in compliance with the federal law, but we don't want to be extorted," says Casimara Gorce, owner of XOX Truffles in North Beach. She says she got a letter from Frankovich demanding $32,000 as a "settlement" on behalf of client Patrick Connally after Connally visited her shop in January and complained that the 3-inch threshold prevented him from entering in his wheelchair. "We offered to help him inside, and when he declined, we served him coffee and a free truffle in the outdoor seating area," she says. "The next thing we know we get this letter from Frankovich."
Young Choi, who has operated the Petite Deli on Columbus Street for 16 years, also got a letter threatening legal action after Connally visited her shop. But she counts herself lucky. Unlike many business owners, she is insured against such lawsuits.
Frankovich, meanwhile, tells SF Weekly that the flurry of legal action brought by his clients at a time when he faces potentially serious discipline from the State Bar for allegedly abusing the ADA law is no coincidence.
"Let's just say I'm staying closer to home, but we're not slowing down," he says. The tough-talking lawyer, who favors alligator boots and cowboy hats, says he has sold the Victorian house on North Van Ness where his law practice is housed (and which, ironically, is wheelchair inaccessible) and expects to move to new quarters elsewhere in the city in the coming months.
And if the State Bar suspends him?
"Someone else from my office will continue the work," he says. "I'll adjust my role to that of a claims representative and I'll be working as hard as ever. Let's put it this way: They're not getting rid of me."