Staff, family members added in complaint over ADA lawsuits

Suit alleges wider conspiracy to make money without following law

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter, Jim Piggott - Reporter, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - An amended complaint was filed Thursday in regards to the attorney and disabled woman who have filed 40 lawsuits against small businesses in our area, accusing the businesses of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The I-TEAM investigators have been following these lawsuits and settlements since July. Lubi's Hot Subs in Lakewood settled an ADA suit brought against the business by Robert Gibson and Wanda Moore. But earlier this month, countersued the pair alleging a scheme to make money without following proper law and procedure. Lubi's claimed Moore was never in the restaurant and accused Gibson of providing false information to encourage a settlement.

The law firms Theole Drach and Terrell Hogan are representing Lubi's, and in the amended complaint the firms filed, Robert Gibson's wife Mary, his daughter Jennifer and Wanda Moore's son Rumley have been added as defendants.

"It's really identical to the past complaint. We are just adding some family members which is really offensive because the ADA prohibits any type of retaliatory against folks that file ADA suits," said Curtis Fallgatter, Robert Gibson's attorney.

As mentioned in the original complaint, the suit accuses Robert Gibson and Wanda Moore of fraud, claiming Moore filed an ADA suit against Lubi's without ever going to the restaurant. That's something Fallgatter denies. He told the I-TEAM previously that Moore has visited every establishment she has sued for ADA violations.

By adding family members and staff to the complaint, it alleges a broader conspiracy, racketeering and a scheme to defraud small businesses. Wanda Moore's son Rumley worked for Gibson's law firm and aided in taking his mother to area businesses. 

The suit states former investigators working for the firm claimed Robert Gibson, his wife Mary and daughter Jennifer were involved with negotiating settlement agreements, finding businesses to sue, taking pictures in advance, and then sending Wanda Moore in later, and sometimes never at all.  (See chart below of defendants named in amended complaint.)

Fallgatter wants to make his point clear. He says the small businesses are in violation, not his client. 

"The ADA requires private attorneys to handle the suits. There's not a government lawyer out here doing it. It's private lawyers that get plaintiffs like Wanda Moore who are willing to help enforce the statute to visit locations to determine if they're in violation and try to get the act enforced," he explained. "He is enforcing the law and frankly I would like to see the investigative reporters out investigating the people who are violating the laws and not criticizing the gentleman and his client who were trying to enforce the law."

We asked Fallgatter about the perception some have that small businesses may not have any choice but to settle the suits and pay Gibson.

"I see how it's been misperceived in that fashion, and of course, the case law and all the courts say that this is how you enforce it," Fallgatter explained. "There was one case with 271 filed by the exact same person. That's how the law gets enforced.  If you don't do it, it will never be enforced and the settlements are very modest."

Fallgatter has told the I-TEAM Wanda Moore hasn’t made money off of the lawsuits. He said the settlement money the businesses pay is to cover investigative costs to the firm. 

A number of small restaurants and businesses tell us they do understand that they are not ADA compliant and do plan to make the repairs needed. However, they said they just don’t believe Gibson should be the one enforcing the changes and having to pay him for it. 

In response to our story, the Theole Drach law firm said the following:

The Department of Justice may file lawsuits in federal court to enforce the ADA, and courts may order compensatory damages and back pay to remedy discrimination if the Department prevails. Under title III, the Department of Justice may also obtain civil penalties of up to $55,000 for the first violation and $110,000 for any subsequent violation."

Additionally, I can appreciate Mr. Fallgatter claiming on behalf of his client that Wanda Moore has been to every business sued. However, they keep dodging several important questions, one of which is, whether Wanda Moore had been to every business that was sent a pre-suit settlement demand by Mr. Gibson."

The next step is for Gibson to either ask the court to dismiss the lawsuit or for him to file a formal answer.

News4Jax wants to correct information reported Thursday morning in regards to this amended complaint. While Wanda Moore’s daughter is named in the complaint as a participant, she is not a defendant. Also Thursday morning's story used the term plea-bargain. The correct term is settlement agreement.

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