Civil racketeering case can go forward against two law firms over disability claims

A federal racketeering civil lawsuit is moving forward against two law firms that have filed hundreds of Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits that supporters say have benefited the disabled — but critics contend have put a financial strain on many small business owners in Fresno and elsewhere.

Federal Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill gave the go-ahead this month in U.S. District Court, ruling that a lawsuit filed by Bay Area attorney Moji Saniefar against the Mission Law Firm and its predecessor Moore Law Firm satisfies the requirements of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

In essence, Saniefar alleges in her lawsuit that the two San Jose-based law firms have been participating in racketeering activity.

Saniefar, who grew up in Clovis, filed the RICO lawsuit on behalf of her parents, who were emotionally crushed when the Mission Law Firm sued them in federal court in July 2014. The suit claimed the family’s longtime Fresno restaurant, Zlfred’s, was inaccessible to disabled people and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Zlfred’s ended up closing and Seniefar’s father died before a federal judge in March 2017 dismissed the ADA lawsuit, court records say.

Filed in June 2017, Saniefar’s RICO lawsuit says the “defendants 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.”

San Francisco attorney John D. O’Connor, who is defending Mission and Moore law firms, said he disagreed with O’Neill’s ruling, maintaining the two firms are not a criminal enterprise. He said Saniefar is on a “smear campaign” that seeks to “terrorize my clients” and has history of using the legal process to punish those who oppose her wealthy family.

“This meritless RICO action is about stopping all persons with disabilities and their attorneys from bringing ADA lawsuits,” O’Connor said. “That should scare every attorney, every citizen of this country because that is an attack on the First Amendment right of petition.”

Fatemeh and Reza Saniefar.jpg

Fatemeh and Gholamreza “Reza” Saniefar owned Zlfred’s restaurant in central Fresno for nearly 40 years. The restaurant closed in March 2015 after it was sued for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Special to The Bee

The Americans with Disabilities Act, adopted in 1990, was enacted to ensure equal access for the disabled in public areas. The act relies on civil enforcement.

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.

Saniefar, who has a law practice in Burlingame in San Mateo County, said the Moore and Mission law firms target “mom and pop” and immigrant business owners because they don’t have the money to fight back.

The RICO Act was enacted in 1970 to combat organized crime syndicates. Since then it’s been expanded to civil courtrooms where defendants faces heavy financial penalties if the allegations are found true.

Saniefar said her RICO lawsuit is likely the first of its kind in the state against two firms that file “quick and dirty boilerplate” ADA lawsuits with allegedly false allegations.

The two law firms filed a motion to dismiss the RICO lawsuit, but O’Neill on March 13 denied the motion.

History of claims

Since 2009, the Moore Law Firm has filed more than 1,400 ADA lawsuits in the Valley and elsewhere. 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, O’Neill’s ruling says. The firm’s assets were transferred to Mission Law Firm. Tanya Moore is the secretary of the Mission Law Firm. Fresno criminal defense attorney Leroy Falk is president.

Saniefar’s lawsuit identifies several defendants, including Ronald Moore, 59, of Clovis, who has been a plaintiff more than 250 ADA lawsuits filed by the Moore Law Firm . His sister-in-law is attorney Tanya Moore, who operated the Moore Law Firm in San Jose with her then-husband, Kenneth Randolph Moore, who is Ronald’s brother. Kenneth Randolph Moore quit practicing in California in March 2015, according to the State Bar.

O’Neill’s ruling says the two firms use relatives to help locate alleged ADA violations.

Saniefar’s RICO lawsuit contends Ronald Moore is not disabled and that he never went to Zlfred’s. In his ruling, O’ Neill noted Saniefar has “video surveillance of Moore that shows him walking, kicking and hopping and bending without any support and without a wheelchair.”

Defense attorney O’Connor said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in another ADA lawsuit has already ruled Ronald Moore is disabled. He said Saniefar played a key role in that appellate ruling by providing video evidence about Moore. “Her private investigators followed Ronald Moore around for months and testified that every single time he was out in public they saw him in a wheelchair,” O’Connor said. “Mr. Moore did not know he was being followed, (so) it is ludicrous to think he would lug around his wheelchair unless he needed it.”

But Judge O’Neill said there is no evidence Saniefar had the opportunity to present arguments on the issue of Ronald Moore’s disability. Though the defendants suggest Saniefar provided relevant evidence, O’Neill said “This is inadequate to demonstrate that Saniefar took control over the issue in that litigation … (and) has had her day in court on the issue of Ronald Moore’s disability, and she is not precluded from arguing it in this (RICO) case.”

Since filing the suit in June 2017, Saniefar has been fighting the two firms by herself. Recently, San Francisco attorney Gregory Hurley joined the legal fight on Saniefar’s side. Hurley works for Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, one of the biggest firms in the nation.

O’Connor said Hurley “has a long track record of representing big business in fighting the ADA.”

What is alleged?

The RICO lawsuit alleges Tanya Moore, her ex-husband Kenneth Randolph Moore, and the firm’s paralegal, Marejka Sacks, are the ringleaders. The lawsuit alleges Tanya Moore knowingly filed numerous court documents with false pleadings and declarations on behalf of Ronald Moore and other disabled plaintiffs. Sacks is accused of doing the bulk of the legal work, even though she is not an attorney.

The alleged fraudulent scheme began around 2009 when Tanya Moore and Kenneth Moore, who goes by Randy, held meetings in Fresno to recruit disabled plaintiffs. Attendees were told they would be given a finder’s fee every time they became a plaintiff in an ADA complaint.

Randy and Tanya Moore also told the would-be plaintiffs that “they need not worry about actually experiencing any difficulty, discomfort or embarrassment” inside the establishments to be sued, the RICO lawsuit alleges. Instead, Randy and Tanya Moore allegedly told the would-be plaintiffs they would send law firm employees, including family members, into the establishments to find ADA violations.

The focus, however, is on Ronald Moore, who is accused of making false disability claims against Zlfred’s. According to court records, Ronald Moore testified he visited Zlfred’s on April 14, 2014; while using a wheelchair, he got stuck in the bathroom and hollered for help.

Saniefar claims Ronald 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.

Ronald Moore’s complaint also says 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. It also claims the door to the establishment was too heavy for a person in a wheelchair to open and that the restaurant’s restroom didn’t have enough floor space for him to maneuver his wheelchair.

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.

“My parents complied with the law,” said Saniefar, who 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.

Using the similar allegations, Ronald Moore also sued the Saniefar family in Fresno Superior Court for an alleged violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act that protects disabled people against barriers in public places such as hotels, restaurants and stores. His civil trial is scheduled to start in August.

Saniefar and O’Connor agree that whoever wins the Fresno Superior Court battle will have an upper hand in the RICO lawsuit.

“This is not a family that voluntarily complied — it took Ronald Moore’s lawsuit to get them to do it,” O’Connor said.

“We will win, and when we do, it will be a victory not only for my clients, but for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the Constitution, and all persons seeking to vindicate their civil rights,” O’Connor said.

If Saniefar wins, she said, “it will put people on notice” that the law doesn’t allow fraudulent ADA lawsuits.

“It’s appalling and unfortunate that anyone would choose to characterize my client’s claims and right to due process in a U.S. court as ‘terrorizing.’ We are looking forward to presenting the case to a jury,” she said.

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