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Wheelchairs of Fortune 

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

Wednesday, Jul 25 2007
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Inside his elegant law office in a restored century-old Victorian at the upper end of Van Ness, with his feet sprawled across an enormous hand-carved desk to reveal the most audacious pair of alligator boots this side of Wyoming, Tom Frankovich projects the swagger of a man at the top of his game.

The cartoon image that greets visitors to his law office Web site may well be the closest thing to a Frankovich self-portrait. In it, the burly, pony-tailed lawyer with a penchant for cowboy hats and bolo ties leads a throng of the disabled from atop a military tank labeled "Access Blaster." A gun-toting female stands guard as Frankovich commandeers a special phone for the hard-of-hearing.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he professes to practice disabilities law the way his favorite role models, World War II generals Rommel and Patton, executed warfare. "The best defense is a good offense," he declares. "You keep going. You don't stop. The only thing that works is firepower; the more the better."

That translates to a prickly style that critics say often skirts the bounds of propriety. He routinely raises the ire of the mostly mom-and-pop business owners his clients are fond of suing by sending them so-called "friendly advice" letters. The missives imply that their legal position is hopeless and urge them to pay up without bothering to seek legal advice.

"Much of what he does is designed to intimidate, and it works," says Catherine Corfee, a Sacramento-area attorney who has tangled with Frankovich on several occasions.

His clients, practically all of them in wheelchairs, think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. But to countless restaurateurs and assorted small-business owners who've been sued by Frankovich under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 civil rights law, the cowboy-loving Frankovich is the devil in a buckskin coat.

Few people dispute the positive changes brought by the law. It is widely accepted that, in the 15 years since its enactment, the ADA has helped to bring about a sea change not only in providing the disabled access to public accommodations, but also in raising awareness of disability rights generally.

But in California, the birthplace of the disability rights movement, critics say that a relative handful of professional litigants in wheelchairs, with help from savvy lawyers like Frankovich, have turned the ADA on its head. So-called "frequent filers" have done so, they say, by bringing lawsuits in "drive-by" fashion, extracting easy settlements from establishments — often small businesses — that fail to post handicapped signs or whose restroom grab bars are a few inches too high.

That's because unlike other civil rights legislation, whose enforcement falls under the auspices of the Department of Justice, Congress left the policing of ADA violations largely to plaintiffs in civil courts. Under the ADA, plaintiffs are entitled only to injunctive relief — that is, that a problem gets remedied — plus attorney's fees. However, in California, which has more ADA lawsuits than any other state, plaintiffs can piggyback claims in state court under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, enacted in 1974 as the nation's first disabilities rights law. It provides damages of at least $4,000 per violation.

Enter Tom Frankovich.

"It's a cottage industry," says Bakersfield attorney Craig Beardsley, who's gone against Frankovich numerous times, "and no one has mastered it better than Tom Frankovich."

Among lawyers at the ADA plaintiffs' bar, none is more feared than Frankovich.

He and his stable of disabled clients are from a long tradition of California lawyers and litigants known for testing the law's boundaries. Bay Area court regular Diane zum Brunnen famously took on Clint Eastwood and his Carmel Mission Ranch Inn before a jury rejected her ADA claims in 2000. Another frequent filer who was active in the '90s, George Louie of Sacramento, even sued one of his own lawyers for having an inaccessible office restroom.

But defense attorneys and others say few are as adept as Frankovich at working the system.

"There are lawyers out there who will throw up any kind of ADA case against the wall and see what sticks, but you won't find him doing that. He comes prepared," says attorney Alan Boon, who has gone against Frankovich several times.

Besides two other attorneys and a support staff of three who work out of the office on Van Ness, the Frankovich team includes consultants who function both as expert witnesses and compliance verifiers. Frankovich's people have even been known to solicit targeted businesses to do the work to bring them into ADA compliance — even as Frankovich was threatening to sue them.

His investigators are routinely dispatched to businesses to observe such things as whether paper dispensers are easily reachable, or whether restroom grab bars are close enough to the toilet bowl. Says Boon, "He leaves few stones unturned."

In the 13 years since he abandoned personal injury law to devote himself to people in wheelchairs, Frankovich, 61, has been the lawyer of record in more than 1,000 disability cases. Most have been brought on behalf of a core group of about a dozen clients. They include Bay Area disability rights advocate and part-time radio host Patrick Connally, Redding-area herb farmer Marshall Loskot, and — arguably the king of all current ADA litigants — Los Angeles-area paraplegic Jarek Molski.

Molski, 34, a paraplegic who was injured in a motorcycle accident as a teenager, has a law degree, although he has never practiced law. During a cross-examination a few years ago, he admitted he doesn't have a regular job outside of filing lawsuits. In four years, Molski filed more than 500 ADA legal claims, becoming, in Southern California at least, a poster boy for so-called "drive-by" ADA lawsuits. (Frankovich represented Molski in 232 of those cases.) Court records show that he often claims injuries at four or more establishments on the same day.

Typically collecting much more in fees than his clients do in damages, Frankovich unapologetically concedes that the ADA has been very kind to him. His ornate, if disheveled, office is stuffed with original paintings, sculpture, and antiques, including a life-size wooden lion from England that dates from the early 19th century. When he's not in the office, he and his longtime girlfriend split time between a sprawling home in Tiburon, with sweeping views of the North Bay, and a 240-acre ranch in the rolling hills near Red Bluff, Calif., that is home to Frankovich's personal herd of 90 bison.

About The Author

Ron Russell


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