Over the last few years, a string of Mountain View shops and businesses have been hit by what they describe as a legal shakedown: lawsuits demanding payment over alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Now the tables have turned, and the law firm behind many of these suits is facing its own day in court. A recent lawsuit is accusing the Mission Law Firm of San Jose of essentially being a criminal enterprise under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Last week, a federal judge declined to dismiss the RICO charges, allowing the case to move forward for a full trial.
The Mission Law Firm's attorneys, Tanya Moore and her ex-husband Randy Moore, have based their practice on filing an estimated 1,400 similar ADA suits against small businesses across the state.
Last fall, the Voice detailed a suit filed by the Moore firm against Ava's Downtown Market & Deli and the Omelette House, which shared the same building. The lawsuit accused the businesses of various violations, including inadequate "knee and toe clearances" at Ava's dining area, and for inventory displays that made the store aisles inaccessible to wheelchairs. Each violation could have resulted in $4,000 in damages in court, and the suit indicated more violations could be added as the case proceeded.
Late last year, Ava's and its partners settled the suit for an undisclosed amount, according to court records. Ava's owner Juan Origel said he was barred by the settlement from commenting or disclosing any details. But he confirmed that the cost to settle was partly responsible for causing the Omelette House to close down late last year.
Similar ADA suits have also targeted many other Mountain View businesses, including the El Paso Cafe, Mountain View Surplus, Blossom Value True Hardware and the Cuesta Park Medical Center. Like Ava's Market, most businesses decide to reach a settlement rather than risk the expense of a prolonged legal battle.
Blossom Value True Hardware co-owner Michele Bernal still resents how the Moores' law firm targeted her business in 2013 for an ADA lawsuit. Her customers in wheelchairs had never before complained about accessibility, she said, yet the Moore's suit seized on poorly marked parking lines, cracked asphalt and bathroom signs that were mounted too high. On the advice of her insurer, they agreed to settle the case for $20,000.
Upon hearing about the new RICO case, Bernal made it clear she was savoring the moment.
"I'm really happy to hear this. We've been saying all along this felt like a legal conspiracy," she said. "I hope they prosecute them and find them guilty -- this law was set up for a good cause but they've been exploiting this loophole."
Pushback against ADA suits
The nature of these ADA cases is very familiar to Burlingame attorney Moji Saniefar, who is leading the RICO case against the Moore law firm. Saniefar first learned of the Moore firm when her father's restaurant in Fresno was sued in 2014 over the same kind of accessibility violations.
Unlike most defendants, Saniefar and her parents decided to fight the case. It wasn't cheap, and it required hiring a private investigator and bearing the costs of about three years of litigation.
But as the case progressed, the allegations made by the Moore firm fell apart, Saniefar said. The plaintiff in the case -- Randy Moore's brother, Ronald Moore -- asserted in a court declaration that he was disabled and needed a wheelchair or cane for mobility. He testified that in 2014 he found himself trapped in a non-complaint restroom at the Saniefar family's restaurant, hollering for help.
Saniefar said that account is hogwash. From their investigation, she said they were able to get video evidence of Ronald Moore walking on his own without any aid. She believes that Moore never actually visited her father's restaurant. A federal judge ended up dismissing the case last year, but by that point her family's restaurant had closed and her father had died. Running the restaurant was more of a hobby for her father, but she said this lawsuit "took the joy out of it for him."
After defending her family's restaurant, Saniefar decided to go on the offensive by filing her own lawsuit. She alleges the Mission Law Firm had conspired to push fraudulent lawsuits with a cohort of plaintiffs and disability consultants, many of whom were family members. Their goal was to exploit disability protections to essentially extort money from small businesses, especially those owned by immigrant families, she said.
For this type of civil litigation, it is unusual to use the RICO law, which was created in the 1970s to prosecute organized crime syndicates and drug traffickers. Saniefar said the law was appropriate in this case because she alleges the Moores committed wire and mail fraud, which are prerequisites for RICO charges. The anti-racketeering law also allows for much higher civil penalties, as well as the possibility that criminal prosecutors could take up the case in the future.
"It seemed like the right fit in this case," Saniefar said. "This will be a warning to those law firms that are mass producing these suits. It will make them vet their plaintiffs much more carefully and it puts them on notice."
Given the stakes, the Mission Law Firm is forcefully defending itself against the allegations of fraud. For example, they point to the video evidence of Ronald Moore walking without a cane. That video was only "a few minutes" long but private investigators were surreptitiously recording him for 77 hours, they say. It doesn't prove anything that Moore can walk with a degree of pain for short periods; he still is physically disabled, said John O'Connor, an attorney defending the firm.
"What's driving this suit is retaliation, not for the Mission Law Firm being bad lawyers but for being good lawyers and enforcing the rights of the disabled," he said. "Nobody can claim that this firm doesn't correctly enforce the law."
Congress seeks ADA reform
As the litigation proceeds, federal lawmakers are also considering addressing the overuse of ADA suits. A new House bill introduced this year by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) would require disabled plaintiffs to first inform property owners of any barriers obstructing their mobility. Property owners would have at least 120 days to correct the issue before plaintiffs could take legal action, and they would be encouraged to seek mediation before filing a lawsuit.
The ADA reform bill didn't gain much support from local Democratic lawmakers. The bill was opposed by most Bay Area members of Congress including Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Santa Clara), Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Anna Eshoo (D-Atherton). They were among the 173 Democrats to vote against the Republican-led ADA reforms last month.
In a constituent letter, Eshoo indicated she opposed the reforms because businesses would no longer be obligated to be proactive in ensuring they were meeting accessibility rules. The reforms would prevent so-called "drive-by" lawsuits, Eshoo admitted, but that wasn't worth weakening protections under the ADA, she wrote.
On the other side, Rep Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) was among a handful of Democrats to come out in support of the bill. Along with voting for it, Speier also signed on as one of the bill's co-sponsors, citing abuse of the current system by some law firms.
"A few bad actor law firms have made it a cottage industry to file lawsuits as shakedowns with no commitment to get the public accommodation accessible. That makes no sense," Speier wrote to the Voice. "Giving businesses 120 days to remedy an access issue gets the barrier fixed. Lawsuits can still be filed."
The bill was approved by the House in a 225-192 vote. It now goes to the U.S. Senate for consideration.