I n a move that some are heralding as a "climate change" in the courts, federal judges have ruled in favor of Central Coast businesses and against Jarek Molski in three separate disability-access cases this month.
In his cases against the businesses - The Galley restaurant in Morro Bay, EOS Winery in Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara County's Mosby Winery - Moski's lawsuits made five claims: four involving state laws, one involving the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, laws.
The federal claim allowed Molski to ask that the buildings be made accessible; the state claim allowed him to ask for $4,000 a day until the changes were made.
But since The Galley and Mosby Winery had either made the legal changes or were rebuilding their facilities, the judge dismissed the federal part of Molski's suit.
And, in all three cases, either the businesses' lawyers or the judges themselves cited one of two seminal court rulings from earlier this year as the reason to dismiss Molski's state claims.
The first, a 20-page, harshly critical description of Molski's suits by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie, accused Molski and his lawyers of extortion, and blocked them from filing ADA lawsuits in federal court.
"In addition to misusing a noble law, Molski has plainly lied in his filings to this Court. His claims of being the innocent victim of hundreds of physical and emotional injuries over the last four years defy belief and common sense," the judge wrote.
A few months later, U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson ruled that Molski's state claims raised "novel and complex issues of state law" - a decision that allowed him to dismiss those claims.
This month, two other U.S. district judges referenced those cases as they threw out similar state claims by Molski. In the other case involving The Galley in Morro Bay, the restaurant's lawyer, Gerald Mason, said he relied strictly on the Rafeedie decision as he successfully argued to have the state law claims against his client dismissed.
Mason's represented six businesses in Morro Bay against disability lawsuits in the last year. And since the Rafeedie and Wilson decisions, Mason said he noticed a definite shift in attitude in the courts.
"The climate has changed," he said. "I've been involved with six of these cases and in the outset we'd go down there [to L.A.] and get murdered. Things have changed since then."
But if business owners, the public, and even the judges found Molski's suits problematic to believe, why did it take so long for this change to occur?
Mason replied that it's not unusual. Judges have to be conservative in how they read the law, he said. "They can't go into it philosophically. Rafeedie did; he really got into the heart of it. I was impressed."
Jarek Molski was born Jaroslaw Molski in Poland in 1970. Twelve years later he moved to the United States with his sister and their grandmother, and the three of them settled in the L.A. area. On June 22, 1988, he was riding his motorcycle northbound on I-5 and smashed into a semi truck about 20 miles north of where Highway 41 intersects the interstate. The accident left Molski a paraplegic.
After his accident, he graduated with a law degree from UC San Diego, and was admitted to both the Washington state bar and the U.S. Tax Court. However, he's never been admitted to practice law in California, never had a law office, and has never made any money practicing law.
In 1998 he started filing ADA lawsuits in federal court. Most, if not all, are essentially identical: Judge Rafeedie described it like this: After arriving at a winery, restaurant, or bowling alley, Molski finds that there are no disabled-accessible parking spots. When he gets to the front door, there are more problems: ramps are too steep or doors are too heavy. And once inside, Molski almost always finds that the service counters are too high.
"Virtually every complaint ends with Molski venturing into the restroom, which inevitably suffers from one violation. Molski almost always suffers some injury - typically to the upper extremities - in the process of transferring himself from his wheelchair to the toilet."
Rafeedie wrote that if that happened at one location, the lawsuit would be understandable. But many of Molski's suits claim he went to multiple places and was injured multiple times all the same day.
"The Court is tempted to exclaim: 'What a lousy day!'" Rafeedie continued. "It would be highly unusual - to say the least - for anyone to sustain two injuries, let alone three, in a single day, each of which necessitated a separate federal lawsuit.
"The record before the Court leads it to conclude that these suits were filed maliciously, in order to extort a cash settlement."
To date, Molski has settled approximately 60 of the 90-something lawsuits he's filed against Central California businesses. According to a New Times analysis, Molski and his lawyers have received an estimated $1.2 million from those cases.
And while judges are throwing out some suits, Molski is still receiving settlement agreements from other cases: Between June 6 and July 19, eight businesses in Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo County initiated or completed settlement proceedings with Molski.
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.