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‘There is no stopping him’

  • August 3, 2008
  • Bruce Bromley

Lawyer sues more than 60 area businesses over disabilities law
By Janine Zooiga
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

SAN YSIDRO – An attorney who has filed nearly 1,500 federal lawsuits in California since 1993 and dozens more in the county since 2004 to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act has set his sights on South County.

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Carlos Vasquez, who owns three motels in San Ysidro, has been
sued over an alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities
Act. Vasquez and other business owners who have been sued
are challenging the claims.
Attorney Theodore Pinnock has filed lawsuits against more than 60 businesses in National City, Chula Vista and several south San Diego communities, claiming people with disabilities were denied access. The 1991 federal ADA law ensures them access to public places and businesses.

In San Ysidro, the business owners are fighting back. They’ve hired an attorney to challenge Pinnock’s claims. He has sued a number of stores in an older commercial district and at the Las Americas outlet center.

On Thursday, Pinnock said he files multiple lawsuits in one area to get other businesses motivated to follow ADA rules. He said the government doesn’t do anything and businesses won’t do it on their own.

“They’re doing exactly what I want them to do,” he said.

Many small-business owners, however, worry that paying large settlements to Pinnock would force them to close.

“It sounds like we’re crying,” said Carlos Vasquez, whose three San Ysidro motels near the border were sued. “We’re dealing with the same economy as everyone but add on the fact that people aren’t traveling to Mexico. Add the whole passport-requirements issue.”

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Attorney Theodore Pinnock has
filed nearly 1,500 lawsuits in
California since 1993.
Vasquez’s Frontier Motel on Via de San Ysidro was sued by Pinnock four years ago for, among other things, a sign violation that Vasquez said he fixed. It cost him $10,000, including attorney’s fees. He said he won’t settle this time.

Vasquez and six others hired attorney Spencer Skeen, who has faced Pinnock before. Skeen filed a petition July 11 to move the San Ysidro cases to federal court because Pinnock filed the latest claims in San Diego County Superior Court.

The South County lawsuits allege that at least two plaintiffs – Noni Gotti and Barbara Humphrey – could not patronize various businesses because of barriers for those with physical disabilities, such as a counter that is too high, a policy against service dogs or steps that lack a slip-resistant surface.

Gotti, described in her lawsuits as having “physical and mental impairments” that require a service dog, was named the plaintiff in 53 suits filed in Chula Vista Superior Court since April 2007.

She alleges in at least 11 of the most recent cases that between April 19 and May 18, she was refused entry because of her dog. She claims to have visited eight stores on May 18.

Humphrey’s lawsuits include eight filed June 23 against several San Ysidro businesses, including one that lists 18 stores in the Las Americas outlet mall at the border and another that names a Subway restaurant on West San Ysidro Boulevard.

Las Americas officials declined to comment. Subway owner Tom Shultz, who was served July 18, said he’s devastated. As a franchise owner, he said he receives monthly inspections for many things, including ADA requirements.

“I’d hate to have even one person not be able to come into my store,” Shultz said.

Pinnock, who uses a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, followed the South County lawsuits with a letter that demands $45,000 to settle. But he adds that he will accept “less than $25,000 or any reasonable counter offer” if settled within two weeks.

Lorie Zapf with San Diego Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said Pinnock began filing claims in Los Angeles after a San Diego federal judge fined him $15,000 last year.

“He’s back (here) in a big way,” Zapf said. “It’s really bad and getting worse. There is no stopping him.”

Pinnock said he’ll keep fighting for the rights of the disabled until their rights are respected.

Zapf believes the only way to stop Pinnock and others who file hundreds of suits is to change state law. A measure, the first with bipartisan support, seeks to reduce unwarranted litigation by encouraging the use of state-certified disability-access specialists and establishing procedures for early judicial review of claims.

The bill may soon be headed to the Assembly for a vote after legislators return from recess next month.

Pinnock, who in 2005 sent warning letters or filed lawsuits against more than 30 Alpine shops and 67 Julian businesses, filed a lawsuit July 8 against the Julian Chamber of Commerce and four other defendants, claiming he was deeply depressed and suffered financially after they conspired to ruin his name and reputation. San Diego attorney David Warren Peters and his group Lawyers Against Lawsuit Abuse are named in the lawsuit, as is Erik Wyatt of Alpine.

Peters said Wyatt, then a minor, objected to a 2007 e-mail he received from Pinnock with an attached list of Alpine businesses he wanted Wyatt to visit. Pinnock wrote: “You get $1,000 for each case when it settles.”

Peters said Wyatt, who hired Pinnock as a trustee of a malpractice settlement he received as a result of his disability, shared the e-mail with <em style=”font-size: small;”>The Sacramento Bee</em> for a story. Peters contends that the lawsuit is being used to punish protected free speech.

Pinnock declined to comment on the e-mail or the lawsuit.

San Ysidro’s Frontier Motel owner Vasquez said business owners understand the legitimate need for ADA access, but they see the lawsuits as more about cash than compliance.

“I’m willing to fight this as long as it doesn’t put us out of business or put a burden on us,” Vasquez said. “We’re willing to do all we can to stop this.”