JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An attorney and a double amputee who have filed dozens of lawsuits against small businesses over failure to comply with federal disability standards are targeting the businesses to force settlements, according to an I-TEAM source.
The source said Wanda Moore, who has sued at least 40 businesses across Northeast Florida, and her attorney, Robert Gibson, aren't aiming to improve federal disability standards, but rather to force the small businesses to pay up.
The reported phrase used around Gibson's office, where Moore's own son works, is “the smaller the better.”
One of those small businesses, Bill's Diner, is owned by Carol Parrish, who arrives at the Marietta diner at 4 a.m. every day to man the grill by herself.
She said she couldn't afford to pay Gibson over an incident she doesn't believe ever happened.
“I was totally floored and shocked,” Parrish said, still clutching the settlement demand that came by certified mail in May. “You have nothing better to do but go out and try to ruin people's lives?”
She said she doesn't remember anyone matching Moore's description coming into her business.
“They don't have no proof that they come in here,” Parrish said, adding that she doesn't believe Moore ever came in her diner.
Parrish said she was unaware that her business, which passed inspection to open in 2013, wasn't compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Since the restaurant opened, Parrish has survived seven strokes and cared for her dying sister, but kept working.
She said the ordeal with Moore nearly forced her to close her doors.
Parrish said Moore and Gibson never mentioned wanting changes made to get the diner's restroom in compliance rather than a settlement payment.
“I have to get an architect for the bathrooms, and none of that's easy. I work. My employees get paid, and if I don't get nothing, I just don't get nothing,” Parrish said.
Gibson wanted $3,000, but instead Parrish offered all she had to her name -- money she said she received to cremate her sister, who recently died of cancer.
Money she told the law firm she needed, but they took it anyway.
Those who have settled can't disclose how much they paid, but the I-TEAM has heard amounts ranging from $1,700 to $3,000.
“I had no choice. When you're left between a rock and a hard place, you don't have no choice. When you don't have no money to hire an attorney to stick up for you and stuff, and I personally think that's why they are targeting small businesses, because we don't have the resources to take for ourselves,” Parrish said.
Parrish's fighting spirit softened as she reflected on the sister she lost and on Moore, who she said is also lost.
“Really, I feel sorry for the woman. Maybe she's just an angry person,” Parrish said. “It's nobody's fault. It was nobody's fault my sister died. The way I look at it is, I will leave it in God's hands. Maybe they will see the light on what they are doing to people, and I hope they do.”
A source told the I-TEAM that from January through May, 50 small businesses settled pre-suits with Gibson's firm, so that could be anywhere from $85,000 to $150,0000 in fees the firm has collected, not including the 40 lawsuits filed in federal court -- 11 of which have now been settled for an undisclosed amount.
Gibson has not returned calls requesting comment.
If it is proven that Moore never entered the businesses she's suing, as Parrish believes, Gibson could face an ethics investigation by the Florida Bar.
One source told the I-TEAM they've already filed a complaint with the Bar.
Anyone who believes that Moore never entered their business and that Gibson falsely represented facts in a suit brought against their business can file an ethics complaint with the Florida Bar. All complaints must be sworn, signed and mailed to the Bar:
The Florida Bar
651 E. Jefferson St.
Tallahassee, FL 32399-2300
For more information, go to www.floridabar.org/attorneydiscipline.