A Fresno judge has dismissed a civil lawsuit against a family-run business whose owners maintain they’re the target of what amounts to a shakedown over Americans with Disabilities Act rules.
Superior Court Judge Kimberly Gaab ruled that Mission Law Firm did not follow California’s Code of Civil Procedures when it sued the Saniefar family in April 2017 because the law firm should have notified the defendants of their rights.
San Francisco attorney John D. O’Connor, who represents Mission, said last week that his client still has a legitimate case against the Saniefar family, which owned Zlfred’s restaurant in Fresno before it closed after it got entangled in a series of ADA-related lawsuits.
In its Superior Court lawsuit, Mission sued on behalf of Clovis resident Ronald Moore, 59. The lawsuit accused Reza and Fatemeh Saniefar of Clovis of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. In essence, Moore contended Zlfred’s was inaccessible to disabled people like him.
In response, the Saniefars sued Mission in U.S. District Court in Fresno on federal racketeering charges, alleging Moore is a fraud.
In March this year, federal Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill said the lawsuit against Mission and its predecessor Moore Law Firm could go forward because it satisfied the requirements of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
Busy law firm
Since 2009, the Moore Law Firm and its successor Mission Law Firm have filed more than 1,400 ADA lawsuits in the Valley and elsewhere, according to O’Neill’s ruling. In late 2015 to early 2016, the Moore Law Firm started to gain “regional and national notoriety” when it was sued by its ADA plaintiffs for fraud and breach of contract, the ruling says.
Court records say Ronald Moore has been a plaintiff in hundreds of ADA lawsuits for the Moore and Mission law firms that are operated by his former sister-in-law, attorney Tanya Moore, of San Jose.
The Saniefars are represented by their daughter, Bay Area attorney Moji Saniefar, who alleges in her federal RICO lawsuit that the two San Jose-based law firms “have perverted the purpose of the ADA ... for their own greed and financial gain” by filing lawsuits based on false allegations of disability and injury in order “to collect quick settlements from California businesses and citizens.”
O’Connor, however, said Saniefar’s federal lawsuit is baseless and noted that the Superior Court dismissal doesn’t affect the RICO case.
The ADA, adopted in 1990, was enacted to ensure equal access for the disabled in public areas. The act relies on civil enforcement.
O’Connor said lawsuits are necessary because some business owners are reluctant to fix their establishments to meet ADA requirements.
But critics contend some lawyers have abused the act to shake down small business owners who are more inclined to pay off plaintiffs because they lack the means to engage in expensive litigation.
Case vs. Zlfred’s
The legal dispute involving Zlfred’s began four years ago. According to court records, Ronald Moore said he visited Zlfred’s on April 14, 2014. While using a wheelchair, Moore said he got stuck in the restroom and hollered for help. The restroom didn’t have enough floor space for him to maneuver his wheelchair, he said.
He also said he parked in a handicap spot that was part of the ramp to the business, which made it difficult for him to use the ramp. And he claims the door to the establishment was too heavy for a person in a wheelchair to open.
Moji Saniefar contends Moore’s account is “pure fantasy” because he never visited the restaurant that day, according to her father’s account before his death in December 2016.
The Saniefars were initially sued in federal court for ADA violations. After the Saniefars were sued, they hired a certified access specialist and a contractor to remove the barriers, court records say. Once the ADA issues were fixed, federal Judge Sheila Oberto dismissed the complaint on March 29, 2017.
The dismissal in federal court did not prohibit Moore from suing the Saniefars in Fresno Superior Court. Moore’s case, however, ended in Superior Court when Judge Gaab dismissed his lawsuit on July 31 this year.
In her ruling, Gaab said the Mission Law Firm did not comply with a 2015 law that requires written notice to the defendants. “(Mission) contends that service of the notices was not required because notices were served in the preceding federal court action,” the ruling says. “Those notices did not satisfy the requirement ... in the context of this action.”
Moji Saniefar said she is pleased with Gaab’s ruling, noting that her parents have always complied with the law. She also said the Americans with Disabilities Act is a good law, but business owners should be given “a grace period” to fix problems before they are sued.
In the telephone interview, Saniefar called the Mission Law Firm a bully; the firm filed a counter-suit against her 73-year-old mother that alleged retaliation for filing the RICO lawsuit. Judge O’Neill rejected the retaliation claim in June this year.
But O’Connor said the Mission Law Firm has a legitimate defense to the RICO lawsuit since the Saniefars have admitted in federal court that they fixed the ADA violations in Zlfred’s after Moore sued them. O’Connor also said he has a credit card receipt to show that Moore was a Zlfred’s customer when he discovered the ADA violations.