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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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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.

He sued both.

For dinner, he went to La Barca in Cow Hollow, a restaurant he had sued several months earlier during another trip to the city. Afterward, he retired to a hotel in Petaluma, which he also ended up suing.

Loskot, 53, says that he has "no idea" how many ADA lawsuits he has filed over the years. "I'm not an activist," he insists. "I don't go looking for violations. These are just problems I run across."

But Kajouee's lawyer, Mark Gibson, who has represented numerous people sued by Frankovich clients, offers a different view. "He's just another one of Frankovich's horses," Gibson says. "[Frankovich] puts him out to race a few weeks every year."

Indeed, records show that Loskot has been the plaintiff in at least 92 such lawsuits since 2000, averaging one a month during the last 7 1/2 years. (As for the two lunches on the same day, he says simply, "I'm someone who likes to eat.")

Paralyzed from a car crash in 1990, the former heavy-equipment mechanic turned certified chef and organic gardener was no stranger to controversy before linking up with Frankovich seven years ago. He and his wife, who has Crohn's disease, were a cause célèbre within the medical marijuana movement for a time in the '90s after being arrested during a pot bust at the Santa Rosa home of their supplier. They each were fined and drew suspended sentences in 1997. Afterward, Loskot became a member of the Hawaiian Cannabis Ministry (its motto: "We use cannabis religiously and you can, too") and says he hasn't been "hassled" since.

"There's a special place in hell reserved for that man," proclaims Larry Juanarena, 75, the former owner of Pat and Larry's, a mom-and-pop steakhouse in Willows, Calif., that he and his wife, Pat, operated for a quarter-century before selling last year. Loskot sued the restaurant in 2005, ironically only a few weeks after Juanarena completed a remodel intended to make the eatery accessible to the disabled. Having settled for $11,000, he considers himself luckier than most, but still bristles at the memory.

"What Loskot and others like him do is nothing less than legalized extortion," Juanarena says.

Loskot couldn't disagree more.

He says he's doing his bit to make the world better for the disabled, one lawsuit at a time. And while he acknowledges that Frankovich makes far more in fees than the "$3,000 to $4,000" Loskot claims to usually take away from such lawsuits, he has nothing but praise for the lawyer.

About The Author

Ron Russell


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