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Man Sues Hundreds over Disability Violations
Tuesday, September 07, 2010
LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Litigation to make a living is a growing profession of sorts. Eyewitness News has been investigating lawsuits based on alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, meant to protect the disabled. But critics say the lawsuits filed by professional plaintiffs are more about greed than helping the disabled.
Alfredo Garcia, a paraplegic who has been in a wheelchair since 1996, is a serial plaintiff. The 41-year-old illegal immigrant and convicted felon makes a living suing small businesses in Southern California for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and its California equivalent.
His days are spent going from business to business looking for violations like a bathroom mirror or a paper-towel dispenser that's too high.
Garcia did not want to talk to Eyewitness News about the more than 500 lawsuits he's filed.
"The Americans with Disabilities Act is not a new law," said Morse Mehrban, Garcia's attorney. "It's been 20 years since this law went into effect and they've had ample opportunity to bring their premises into minimal compliance."
So is Garcia a crusader for the rights of disabled people? Or is he just out for a quick buck? It depends who you ask.
"We knew right away it was a scam -- it was something like he just wanted to get some money," said Martin Del Campo, co-owner of La Casita Mexicana restaurant in Bell.
Garcia sued La Casita, saying its bathroom mirror was too high. He claimed he ate at La Casita four times, but surveillance video from those four dates shows no one in a wheelchair visiting the bathroom, which has a full-length mirror attached to the door.
Garcia was shown the surveillance video but he did not even recognize the restaurant as being La Casita. Garcia and his attorney quickly agreed to drop the case.
"Mr. Garcia targets small mom-and-pop-type businesses," said paralegal Daniel Munoz, who helped defend the La Casita case and investigated Garcia's background.
"Mr. Garcia became disabled because he fell out of an avocado tree while intoxicated. Mr. Garcia has felonies, one for selling weapons, one for selling crack, one for vehicular burglary," he added.
In a 2009 sworn deposition, Garcia admitted to violating his probation by snorting cocaine and smoking pot. He also admitted that he's not a U.S. citizen, doesn't have a green card and bought two Social Security cards off the street.
"We knew this was just legal extortion," said attorney Arthur Barens.
Barens took that deposition while representing El Ceviche Loco. During a break, Garcia asked to use the restroom at Barens' office.
"He came in and used the men's room, but the real purpose of it was to measure our sink and the toilet height and height of the safety rails for the handicapped just to determine if he could find a violation," said Barens.
Garcia then filed a lawsuit against the attorney as well, but later dropped the case.
No one disputes the value of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but some say plaintiffs like Garcia aren't acting in the spirit of the law.
"You're seeing someone whose full-time job, if we can call it that, is to sue," said attorney Ryan McNamara, who defended El Pollo Loco against an Alfredo Garcia lawsuit.
In a deposition, Garcia admitted the lawsuits help to pay his bills and that he feels "lucky" whenever he finds an alleged violation.
"He's simply bounty hunting," said McNamara. "And that's why he feels lucky because every time he finds one of these things he believes he just found another lawsuit and an easy way to profit."
"I challenge anyone to come and sit in a wheelchair and go around with one of my clients every day and see if they still think these lawsuits are frivolous at the end of the day," said Garcia's attorney, Mehrban.
Mehrban specializes in this type of litigation. He has a roster of clients who all file similar ADA-related lawsuits.
David Ono has a closer look at why these serial plaintiffs don't always have to pay the court fees associated with filing lawsuits: it's your tax dollars funding these lawsuits.
For the full story: Some disability lawsuits cost L.A. taxpayersback
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