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Accusing law firm Potter Handy of shaking down small businesses for cash payments, the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles are seeking the return of millions of dollars the owners paid to settle thousands of groundless disability-rights lawsuits.

According to the report by Courthouse News, the lawsuit filed jointly by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón in San Francisco County Superior Court claims the firm files thousands of boilerplate Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits on behalf of a handful of disabled clients against small businesses, then pressures the owners to settle as quickly as possible for an amount between $10,000 and $20,000.

“Conservatively assuming an average settlement figure of $10,000 per case, Defendants have extracted over $5,000,000 from California’s small businesses from the cases filed on behalf of just one of their serial filers in just over two years,” the complaint says. The district attorneys believe the firm has systematically drained California businesses, many owned by immigrants who do not speak English or fully understand the vagaries of the American legal system, out of millions of dollars over the past four years.

One Potter Handy client, Orlando Garcia, has filed more than 800 lawsuits. Another client, Brian Whitaker, filed more than 1,700 federal cases. The complaint also lists serial filers Chris Langer, Rafael Arroyo, and Scott Johnson, who was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2019 for failing to report the income he received from the lawsuits on his taxes.

The San Diego-based firm has offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as Utah and Texas. Its website says it attorneys specialize in disability rights, employee rights and mass tort litigation, and also represent wildfire victims.

Boudin and Gascon say the firm’s filings took an especially nefarious turn during the Covid-19 pandemic, when its attorneys and serial filers Orlando and Whitaker began targeting small businesses in San Francisco’s Chinatown, like Hon’s Wun-Tun House. Whitaker claims to have visited Hon’s Wun-Tun House in March 2021 and encountered outdoor dining tables that were wheelchair inaccessible despite that the fact the restaurant was only offering takeout and did not have any sit-down service. The same was true for coffee shop Latte Express, which was also hit with one of Whitaker’s boilerplate lawsuits.

Renmin Yan, who owns Hon’s Wun Tun House, immigrated to the U.S. from China 15 years ago, working for 11 years as a waitress before purchasing the restaurant from its previous owner in 2018. Yan ended up settling with Whitaker, and estimates that it will take her 2-3 months to recover the cost.

The district attorneys’ lawsuit says Johnny Ly, the owner of Latte Express, did not understand Whitaker’s lawsuit and couldn’t afford a lawyer, so his contractor son-in-law sent workers to the cafe to fix the alleged ADA violations. Despite this good faith effort, Whitaker and Potter Handy simply moved for a default judgment against Ly, which they obtained.

Boudin and Gascón believe the sheer number of lawsuits indicate that they are bogus, since the serial filers could not have possibly encountered each barrier they list, let alone intend to return to the businesses since they are located hundreds of miles away from where they live. Security footage from some of the businesses reveal that the serial filers never visited them at all.

“Still others were sued for alleged violations that objectively did not exist; for example, one Chinatown business was sued for allegedly having an illegally steep 12.5% ramp to its front door, when in fact the entranceway was nearly flat,” the lawsuit says.

Potter Handy partner Dennis Price strongly denied the complaint’s allegations. “The allegation that we targeted any particular community is a heinous lie and not supported by any evidence,” he told Courthouse News. “If any amount of effort had been made to look into where our cases were filed, they would see that our cases are filed throughout the state. They don’t target any particular neighborhood or business.”

Price said Boudin and Gascon appear to be trying to curry favor with small business owners at a time when both are up for recall “based on perception that they are not faithfully executing the duties of their offices.”