When Jarek Molski, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, sued The Whaleâ€™s Tale restaurant in Morro Bay last November, his lawyer used a telling nickname when he referred to his client: Jarek â€œThe Sheriffâ€? Molski. Since 1998, Molski has filed 387 lawsuits in federal court against a host of Californiaâ€™s restaurants, bowling alleys, wineries, and fast-food joints, alleging that the companies had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
Now heâ€™s filed his second suit in San Luis Superior Court. On Jan. 10, he sued Doug and Nancy Beckett, owners of Peachy Canyon Winery, for similar allegations.
While Molski has been suing companies around the state for several years, it wasnâ€™t until mid-2004 that San Luis Obispo residents heard about him. That was when he filed suit against dozens and dozens of places around the county.
Thomas Frankovich, Molskiâ€™s San Francisco lawyer, described the process like this: Molski, who travels a lot, would find himself in a restaurant that hadnâ€™t made legally required handicap-accessible changes. As he coped with those overly heavy doors, difficult-to-use bathrooms, and too-steep wheelchair ramps, Molski allegedly would injure and embarrass himself. He would sue, and after the company had made the appropriate changes, he would agree to settle â€” for tens of thousands of dollars â€” so that both sides could avoid lengthy litigation.
Frankovich, who could not be reached for this story, told New Times last month that this is only fair; the ADA has been around for 10-plus years and the wineries and restaurants were knowingly in the wrong. Sure his client was making money from the suits, he said, but Molskiâ€™s suits were improving things for physically handicapped people around the state.
But in December, U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie accused Molski of running a â€œscheme of systematic extortion,â€? and ruled that he was a â€œvexatious litigantâ€? â€” an order that prevents Molski from filling suits in federal court without first getting permission from a judge.
After another judge threw out Molskiâ€™s federal suit against Templetonâ€™s Peachy Canyon Winery, he refiled here in San Luis Obispo County.
In the new suit, he says he visited the winery with his significant other, Brygida Molski, on Aug. 9 last year. But when they pulled into Peachy Canyonâ€™s parking lot, they found no handicap-parking space. On their way inside, they saw no ramp to the patio and no accessible paths to the picnic tables. Inside, they tried to do some wine tasting but found the counter was too high. And when Molski went to the bathroom and tried to get on the toilet, he says he hurt his shoulder because there were no grab bars.
In court documents, his lawyer claims that, â€œAs a â€¦ result of [Peachy Canyonâ€™s] failure to place grab bars, [Molski] suffered injury, physical discomfort, emotional distress, mental anguish, which includes but is not limited to shame, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, chagrin, disappointment, and worry.â€?
The question is, if a federal judge can declare Molski a â€œvexatious litigantâ€? and stop his flow of suits, can a local judge to the same?
The simple answer is yes. A section of the California Code of Civil Procedure allows local judges to do just that. Thereâ€™s even a local precedent for it: Local attorney Jeff Stein, who has nothing to do with Molskiâ€™s case, remembers when a local judge ruled that a man named Donald Schneider was a vexatious litigant. Schneider later made headlines when he died in San Luis Obispo Sheriff deputiesâ€™ custody.
Jere Sullivan is representing Peachy Canyon, and he said the owners plan on â€œvigorously defendingâ€? themselves. As their lawyer, heâ€™s planning on doing more research on vexatious litigants.
â€œIt may be something where the court can [see] if Mr. Molski meets the criteria under California law. Does fact that he has filed several hundred suits for the purpose of extracting settlements qualify him under California law?â€? he asked. â€œIâ€™m going to find out.â€?
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.