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He hit Bay Area small businesses with disability lawsuits. Video may uncover ‘a monumental fraud’

San Francisco Chronicle 9/28/2022 Esther Mobley

A Florida man who has filed disability lawsuits against hundreds of businesses, including dozens of Bay Area wineries and restaurants, may not actually have the disability he claims, defense attorneys allege.

The suits filed by Andres Gomez of Miami claim that numerous businesses’ websites fail to meet accessibility standards. One of his complaints is that images on the websites are not compatible with screen-reader software, which Gomez said he uses because of a visual impairment.

But one of Gomez’s targets, a Los Angeles race car company called Fast Toys, says it has evidence that Gomez has exaggerated his visual impairment. 

Fast Toys’ attorneys at the Karlin Law Firm commissioned an investigation of Gomez, resulting in surveillance footage of him walking on the street and entering a building in ways that contradict how Gomez has described his disability, according to Karlin attorneys. They have included a video with this footage in a new court filing. Although Gomez v. Fast Toys was dismissed in May, attorneys filed this new document last week aiming to recover $8,512 in court fees from Gomez.  Fast Toys’ attorneys received the payment Tuesday.

Gomez’s lawsuits constitute “a monumental fraud perpetrated against small businesses and the public,” the filing reads. The Karlin firm held a press conference on Wednesday to discuss the filing.

Gomez’s attorney, Dennis Price of law firm Potter Handy, called the video “a smear job.” Just because a person doesn’t look like they have a disability, he said, doesn’t mean they don’t have one. “It’s another form of discrimination when they’re told that their lived experiences don’t meet the standards of what people consider a disability,” Price said. He did not make Gomez available for an interview.

Whether the investigation and video could spell legal trouble for Gomez, who is well known in small-business circles for his serial filings of disability lawsuits, is unclear. But Fast Toys owner Chris Carel said he’s more interested in using this information to help other business owners that Gomez may sue in the future. “We want this to serve as an alert to the public,” said Dan Danet, one of Fast Toys’ attorneys.

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and its California state equivalent, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, brick-and-mortar businesses that have websites must make accommodations for the visually impaired. Accessible websites will feature contrasting colors, text alternatives for images and captions that are intelligible to a screen-reading device. The hundreds of lawsuits that Gomez has filed all claim that his inability to access a website constituted discrimination under the ADA.

Serial, boilerplate lawsuits are common in disability law; Scott Karlin, another of Fast Toys’ attorneys, estimates that 90% of ADA claims are filed by serial plaintiffs. But these suits are receiving new attention in California. In April, district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles filed a civil suit against Potter Handy, alleging that the firm had engaged in fraudulent litigation in ADA cases. A San Francisco Superior Court judge dismissed the suit in August.

Before receiving a letter from Potter Handy informing him that Gomez was going to sue him, Carel said he hadn’t given much thought to accessibility concerns on his website. Fast Toys offers two services: renting race cars, and providing access to racing tracks. “I have no services that are available for blind people,” said Carel, who is his company’s sole full-time employee. “I was taken aback. Like, why is this happening to me?”

Most defendants in these cases opt to settle out of court, since that’s often less expensive than going to trial. Martin Orlick, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in ADA compliance, told The Chronicle in April that website accessibility cases often settle for $15,000 to $45,000. Going to trial, Danet estimated, could cost a defendant more than $50,000.

Gomez has appeared to target clusters of businesses within specific industries. For example, in the last year he has sued more than 50 Bay Area wineries. Many chose to settle, among them Reid Family Vineyards in Napa, whose owner uses a wheelchair and hosts fundraisers for disability causes. Reid paid Gomez $8,000.

Price, Gomez’s lawyer, said there was a misconception within the wine industry that Gomez had “just targeted wine websites.” Wine, Price said, “was one of the areas he had an interest in, partly because of his interest in wine and luxuries.”

Settling with Gomez might have seemed the obvious choice for Carel, too. But, he said, he was “so sure that this guy’s a scammer” that he decided to fight back. 

“Even though it’s gonna cost the same amount of the settlement money I could give him, I’m gonna use the money to defend myself,” he said.

Carel’s attorneys hired a private investigator, who collected footage of Gomez on public sidewalks in the Miami area and inside a building where he participated in a deposition with Scott Karlin via Zoom. The footage shows Gomez wearing headphones and looking at his phone, walking up stairs without using a hand rail, and letting himself into the backseat of a ride-hailing vehicle.

For the video included in its recent filing, the Karlin Law Firm spliced surveillance footage with a recording of the deposition, held on two days in April and May. The defense attorneys believe the video evidence contradicts Gomez’s statements in the deposition and in his lawsuits, such as his claim that he is not able to walk easily without assistance. During the deposition, Gomez says he cannot read text on a computer screen enlarged to 3200% from less than 2 feet away; video footage shows him looking at his phone screen at about the same range.

Danet and Karlin allege that these contradictions are proof that Gomez is not visually impaired to the degree he has claimed in the lawsuits. If true, that could jeopardize his standing to file the ADA lawsuits. “Based on our investigation, it’s our strong belief that he does not need the (screen reader software) to do any of this,” said Danet.

But Gomez’s attorney Price called that interpretation misguided, saying it perpetuated discrimination. 

“It’s a misunderstanding that people with visual disabilities are either able to see or they’re totally blind,” said Price. “Mr. Gomez has never said that he’s totally blind. He’s legally blind.” Though it might look to an untrained eye like Gomez is reading his phone, he’s actually using a screen reader with his headphones, Price said. When he walked up the steps without using a handrail, Price said, he was lifting his feet higher than some people might in order to search for the next step.

Gomez is recognized as legally blind in Florida, Price added, and has been evaluated by “multiple doctors.”

Several of Gomez’s pending cases in California were dismissed this summer. Price would not say why Gomez v. Fast Toys was dismissed. The Karlin Law Firm has represented 21 defendants in cases filed by Gomez and earned a dismissal in 17 of them, Danet said. Gomez has not filed any ADA lawsuits in California lately, but has filed at least one in Florida in the last month.

The Karlin Law Firm received the check from Potter Handy for $8,512, covering Carel’s court fees, four months after the case had been dismissed. Price said the delay in payment was because of a “miscommunication.”

Carel’s attorneys declined to speculate on whether the evidence in their video could lead to prosecution against Gomez. “I can’t speak for the DA’s office,” Danet said.

But Carel said that just getting the video out there, and recovering his court fees, would be satisfaction enough. “I’m happy if we can help bring this scammer down and make other companies not go through what I lived.”

Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle's senior wine critic. Email: Twitter: @Esther_mobley

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