By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
With all the deviants running around these days, you can only imagine what could happen in an Orange County public restroom. David Allen Gunther, a fellow who knows depravity well, said he was traumatized by his Nov. 11, 2003, experience at the Anaheim West Car Wash. Gunther, who is wheelchair-bound, found a bathroom mirror mounted a few inches too high for him to "preen" himself. In a legal complaint, he insisted the experience caused him "anguish, anxiety, humiliation, anger, frustration, distress, embarrassment, apprehension and disgust." He demanded that the owner of the business pay him $4,000. Would you believe that Gunther has the law on his side?
Slouched in his custom-made wheelchair at his daily hangout—a Garden Grove Starbucks—Gunther doesn't look capable of throwing Southern California business owners into a panic. But he has. He'd left his usual head attire, an oily baseball cap, at home and instead had showered, combed his hair and worn a clean shirt for the interview. He's got large brown eyes, a Johnny Cash face much older than his 43 years and delivers mostly clipped answers in a raspy cigarette voice. He's wearing shorts today; gruesome scars mark his right leg. Appearances are critical, and on this late September afternoon, Gunther is angry that people don't see him as a hero.
"I get hate mail," he said. "I'm called a scumbag. Someone told me they hope I rot in hell. Another guy said I deserve to be in a wheelchair."
The hostility is understandable. Since 2003, Gunther has filed more than 200 lawsuits against small businesses he claims have violated the accessibility provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and California's tougher version, the Unruh Act. The laws are simple in one respect: if a disabled person finds an accessibility barrier—for example, no designated handicapped parking, a heavy bathroom door or a toilet paper dispenser mounted out of easy reach for someone in a wheelchair—that person is entitled to sue and collect $4,000 per violation from the business.
It doesn't take a genius to calculate that the well-intentioned laws can be a lucrative scheme in the hands of an unscrupulous person. Lawyers familiar with Gunther's activities estimate he's taken more than $400,000 in the last 36 months, mostly from mom-and-pop shops in Garden Grove, Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Orange, Tustin, Buena Park, Stanton, Seal Beach, Santa Ana, Dana Point, Huntington Beach and Los Angeles. If true, that's quite a haul for a man who has spent most of his adult life unemployed, according to records obtained by the Weekly.
Asked about his financial windfall, Gunther ignored the question—a tactic he shares with Morse Mehrban, his Los Angeles-based lawyer. (Full disclosure: Alleging discrimination against men, Mehrban sued OC Weekly and its sister paper LA Weekly in 2002 because a personals telephone chat line advertisement allowed women to use a service for free. The case settled out of court.)
I'd watched Mehrban maneuver in court to avoid complying with a discovery demand for the details of Gunther's ADA settlements. Mehrban resisted for weeks, arguing that the information was "confidential and proprietary." Said Mehrban, "There is nothing to be gained by examination of the documents." Eventually, he told a judge that the issue was moot. He routinely destroys all Gunther's paper records and erases the memories of his office computers, he said.
Gunther took a similar stance when pressed about the settlement money. He looked at his wristwatch and said he needed to end the interview soon because of a sudden engagement. He fidgeted, rolled back in his wheelchair several feet and smiled faintly.
"My attorney handles all the numbers," Gunther finally volunteered. "I'm just not going to go into all that."
I nodded, looked at him but did not ask another question.
"I'm just trying to make the world a better place," he said.
It was obvious that Gunther craved a cigarette, but for some reason he put it off, twiddling his fingers anxiously. When he thought I'd left Starbucks, he chain-smoked with another unemployed buddy.
A Weekly investigation traced Gunther's activities around the western U.S. during the last quarter of a century, uncovering evidence that not only has he exaggerated his reliance on a wheelchair, but he's also whitewashed his own history of chronic unemployment, multiple drug addictions, narcotics trafficking, assaults, petty thefts, burglaries, a decade of missed child support payments, and more than a dozen arrests and stints in jail.
LaVerne Gibson was one of the first entrepreneurs Gunther sued in 2003, the year he began filing an avalanche of court actions. Gibson operated a tiny Anaheim flower and gift shop in an old converted house facing Brookhurst Street near Disneyland. Gunther wanted the elderly woman to pay him $4,000 because he allegedly couldn't find a wheelchair ramp at her business. The event caused him "anguish, anxiety, humiliation, anger, frustration, distress, embarrassment, apprehension and disgust," Gunther said in his legal complaint.
Gibson is not here to share her opinion of Gunther. She passed away last December. But here's the kicker: Gibson lived with only one leg, was herself truly confined to a wheelchair and had built a ramp to her shop long before Gunther claimed otherwise.