JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One side says a flurry of lawsuits targeting small businesses in and around Jacksonville is to guarantee access for the disabled. Some of the business owners sued call it a scam.
The I-TEAM has obtained 40 federal lawsuits filed since January that cite violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Wanda Moore, a double amputee who uses a wheelchair, and her attorney, Robert Gibson, filed all the lawsuits. Both refused to answer questions about the lawsuits on Tuesday.
The suits argue the businesses don’t have adequate handicapped parking, or that restrooms and other facilities are not in compliance with federal law.
No one disputes that all businesses must be ADA compliant and there is no grandfather clause to exempt older, smaller businesses, as some might believe. But business owners told News4Jax the lawsuits as unfair, costly and don’t give them a chance to comply with violations.
While Moore is the listed victim in the lawsuits, the businesses who spoke with News4Jax Tuesday said they are the ones being victimized.
“It's a scam. They are scamming people,” said Sam Tahan, who has been sued twice – once for each of his convenience store locations.
Most of the businesses are restaurants, including Beach Road Chicken Dinner, Russ Doe’s Sandwich Shops and the Sandwich House.
George Bateh and his family have owned the Sandwich House on Beach Boulevard at Art Museum Drive for 39 years, and, like others, are trying to figure out what hit them.
“I think they are trying to scam us,” Bateh said. “That's what I think they are trying to do.”
Bateh said he remembers Moore coming in the restaurant. He said she didn’t say a word or complain, but then he was hit with the lawsuit.
"The lady that presented me with the lawsuit says she’s doing it from Middleburg up to Callahan,” Bateh said. "This is a problem they are trying to create for small business owners... We've never been inspected by the city and told we had to do anything, so I believe it's frivolous and they are just trying to gouge people and steal their money, especially small-business people."
Bateh said he’s hired a lawyer and he’s not going to settle.
Bonnie Barnes is disabled, but has eaten at the Sandwich House on Beach Boulevard for decades with no problems. She has no problems with the restaurant, and said she and her daughter, Beth, were surprised that it is being sued because it is not accessible.
“She does just fine here,” Beth Barnes said of her mother. “These days, people want easy money, it seems.”
“I love him,” Bonnie Barnes said of the owner. “It’s ridiculous.”
The owner of Beach Road Chicken and other businesses are also fighting the lawsuits, 11 have already reached cash settlements with Moore and her attorney.
The owner of Russ Doe’s, a lunch spot near Everbank Field, told News4Jax that part of the agreement is that he can’t talk about the case. Regulars could see changes at the restaurant that are making it more accessible.
Just down Talleyrand Avenue is a convenience store that is also being sued by Moore. Owner Sam Tahan told News4Jax he just paid $1,700 to make the case go away. He said Moore and her lawyer then sued him over violations at a second location nearby.
Now he’s angry.
“It's a scam. They are scamming people,” Tahan said, adding he’s going to try and fight the second lawsuit.
Pace of lawsuits increasing
Moore filed her first suit Jan. 30, 2017, against a Bono's Pit Bar-B-Q. That suit is still pending. The very next day, she filed two more lawsuits. Two more followed in February.
Thirty more lawsuits were filed in June and July. Four more were filed on Tuesday.
Scroll to the bottom of this story for an interactive map of all the businesses sued
Moore wouldn’t answer questions for this story, but Gibson, her attorney described her as a kind and gentle woman who is being denied equal access. He added that only 2 percent of stores nationwide have complied with ADA rules.
Moore's lawsuits say that a knee transplant left her with a blood condition that eventually cost her both her legs. Court records show she settled a malpractice case over that incident in 2012.
Plaintiff not answering questions
The I-TEAM went by Moore’s Westside home to try and talk to her and found it was up for sale. She also didn’t answer her phone.
Gibson, her lawyer, is also a chiropractor. Court records show his law firm represented Moore previously in her 2011 divorce case.
Gibson also wouldn’t sit down for an interview with the I-TEAM, but released a statement:
I am so glad that the news is finally helping to shed light on the issue of discrimination against the disabled community. Our law office is dedicated to fully fighting the injustice of discrimination of this protected class and encourage those that experience accessibility problems to contact our office."
“The business owners feel like they're being extorted,” said Ed Birk, an attorney who has represented two of the businesses that were sued.
Birk, who also represents WJXT in media and First Amendment cases. said he often advises these businesses to settle.
”The Americans with Disabilities Act is a really good thing and I'm sure Wanda Moore is a nice lady, but the way that the plaintiffs in these cases go about it is really a bad thing. It generates ill will for the disabled. It costs small businesses money they can ill afford,” Birk said.
ADA being misused
David Goldfarb, owner and president of ADA Compliance Specialists, does work for national chain retail stores and defense attorneys. He told the I-TEAM that he thinks the federal law is being misused.
” A good law has been hijacked, and it's now a cottage industry where plaintiff attorneys are making money hand-over-fist,” Golffarb said. “Unfortunately, it gives a lot of persons with disabilities that are honest and have nothing to do with these ADA lawsuits a bad reputation.
The I-TEAM found these types of lawsuits are being filed against businesses all over. A Tampa news investigation found 6,000 ADA compliance lawsuits have been filed in Florida since 2012. The same person in South Florida filed 1 in 5 of those suits.
Serial suers have also struck in Arizona. A judge there tossed out 1,000 lawsuits this year.