There's a lot of suspicion surrounding the disabled these days, and Don Shear says he's feeling the pain. Shear has been in a wheelchair for 34 years, ever since he was in a car accident that injured his spinal cord when he was in his early 20s.
Four years ago he took on another disability when he fell in a shower in a motel in Santa Maria. Shear broke his right leg and doctors were forced to amputate after complications with the healing process. Shear successfully sued the motel because it did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Then, a month ago, Shear fell out of his chair again outside his apartment building when one of his wheels got stuck in a crack. Shear didn't realize his leg was broken until he woke up the next day and it was swollen.
Shear said that before he fell he asked his property management company to fix the crack, but it never did. He also asked it to put in handicapped parking, but that never happened either.
Now Shear is pretty much stuck in his apartment for the next three months, which is when he's supposed to get his cast off. But that's not really the worst of it.
Shear said being disabled these days is even more challenging in light of the myriad of frivolous ADA lawsuits that have hit California businesses. Not only have the lawsuits hurt local business, but they've also damaged the public's perception of the disabled.
In 1996-99, Shear sat on the board of directors for SLOCO Access, a nonprofit group that worked with local businesses and governments to insure that they were meeting ADA mandates. The group offered free evaluations and recommendations to local businesses on ways to comply with the ADA. SLOCO also recommended carpenters who were familiar with bringing buildings into ADA compliance.
The group also worked with local governments to get sidewalks and public buildings into ADA compliance. Shear said at first many local governing bodies were reluctant because the ADA was an unfunded mandated law.
"All they needed was a nudge," said Shear. "We would try and advise them on the right thing to do, and once we started nudging people, they'd do it."
But the group lost its grant money and Shear is concerned that without an autonomous group working with local business owners, people with disabilities are suffering a bad image in light of the numerous frivolous ADA lawsuits that have hit the county.
"It's affected us in that when we go places we don't know what people think of us," says Shear. "Now I feel like the owners are looking at us thinking, 'Well, is this guy trying to sue me?'"
Most of the attention over frivolous lawsuits has mostly come as a result of Jarek Molski, a disabled Woodlands man who has filed some 50 lawsuits locally. Federal judges recently forbid Molski from filing any more lawsuits, labeling him a vexatious litigant.
"[He] smeared us after we had built up a good reputation with SLOCO Access," said Shear. "It hurt."
Unfortunately for Shear and local businesses, SLOCO Access was forced to disband before Molski came to the Central Coast.
"If we we're still active we would have a heads up that this guy was heading our way." Shear said. "We could have been prepared for him. I don't know if we could have stopped him."
Even though SLOCO Access was financially hurting, the group was able to survey a couple local businesses for handicap-access when Molski came to town.
Now, with a second broken leg that Shear said is the result of not having a clear path of travel to his apartment, he's hired a lawyer to sue his landlord. But Shear won't be using the same SLO lawyer he used four years ago to sue the Santa Maria motel.
Instead, his former lawyer, who refused to take on his case, referred him to a successful San Francisco-based lawyer, Thomas Frankovich, who is well known for representing Jarek Molski.
Shear said he didn't put two and two together until he got on the phone with Frankovich.
According to Shear, Frankovich asked him if wanted to "make some money" and if he was "tired of not being able to get into places." Shear said Frankovich told him that he "needed someone" in the Central Coast area as well, presumably to file lawsuits because Molski has been banned from doing so.
So Shear hired another lawyer instead. He said he just wants the crack fixed. "You expect it to be like any other place. If there is something that needs to be repaired you call the landlord and they come and repair it," said Shear. "It's going to get fixed, I'm going to make sure it gets fixed." But, he said he's not going to get "farmed out" for profit to get it fixed. Â³
Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.