On Friday, the California Supreme Court overturned a Santa Ana-based Court of Appeal decision that required plaintiffs in Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-type cases to prove that businesses purposely violated the law by not making their facilities usable by wheelchair-bound customers.
The high court, acting on a request for clarification by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, decided that appellate justices in Orange County misunderstood the intention of California's Unruh Civil Rights Act by ruling against David Gunther in a case involving a Jack-in-the-Box.
Gunther was the subject of a controversial 2006 OC Weekly cover story
because of his criminal past as he paraded as a hero by filing lawsuits against mostly small Southern California businesses that failed to comply with the ADA or Unruh. Business owners believe Gunther abused the law by forcing them to pay him at least $4,000 for every violation he claimed to have found. He has filed hundreds of lawsuits throughout California in recent years and pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties.
Gunther's MO is to visit a shop, notice a violation, fail to complain to the owners and then, months later, send them a demand for payment plus attorney fees. Several small businesses had to fix their ADA problems plus pay Gunther in some cases more than $30,000. By the time one of his cases reached the court of appeal here, businesses and members of the legal community--including the court of appeal, viewed Gunther as exploiting a legal loophole for his financial gain.
But, in a unanimous decision, the supreme court backed Gunther, calling the OC appellate decision against him "wrong."
"[The OC decision against Gunther, who is wheelchair-bound] was a results-driven, ass-backwards judicial activist decision from the start, and it's nice to see the higher courts recognizing this," Marc Angelucci, a legal advisor to Garden Grove-resident Gunther, told me in a celebratory email.
Angelucci himself is famous in this area of the law. He's the man who helped spur the end of "ladies night" drink specials in California by suing an establishment in Los Angeles. The courts agreed with Angelucci by noting that the Unruh Act prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, language spoken, disability, medical condition, marital status or sexual orientation.
The upshot of this latest state supreme court ruling is that businesses must either get into ADA compliance quickly or risk being forced to become wheelchair accessible by the likes of Angelucci, attorney Morse Mehrban and Gunther, who are also going to win lucrative penalties in the process.
For those who argue that the ADA and Unruh have effectively created an extortion-type situation against small business, the high court said that it is up to Congress and the state legislature to offer a remedy to any perceived abuses of the legal system.
You can read a copy of the court's ruling HERE
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly