Riverside County District Attorney files civil action claiming disability lawsuits were fraudulent

by in News

RIVERSIDE — Four attorneys and another man accused of filing alleged shakedown lawsuits against dozens of Riverside County businesses over Americans with Disabilities Act violation claims —  which the defendants’ attorney asserts were legitimate — are being sued by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.

“The defendants are accused of filing more than 100 lawsuits against individuals and small businesses in Riverside County alleging violations of the ADA,” according to a D.A.’s office statement issued Thursday.

“The defendants specifically identified small businesses for the purpose of targeting them with fraudulent lawsuits. The defendants made misrepresentations in the legal documents they filed with the courts in an effort to obtain monetary settlements from the businesses, ” the statement said.

Craig Gerald Cote, 67, of Huntington Beach, Babak Hashemi, 40, Joseph Richard Manning, 50, Michael John Manning, 43, and James Rutherford, 66, are all listed in the civil complaint alleging breaches of the Unfair Competition Law in Business, as well as false advertising under the California Business & Professions Code.

Hashemi and both Mannings are from Newport Beach. All except Rutherford are practicing attorneys.

“There is no validity whatsoever to the D.A.’s allegations,” defense attorney David Darnell, who is representing all of the men, told City News Service. “This is completely misguided and without any merit by the D.A. There is nothing false about the ADA lawsuits. Those corporations that were sued did violate the act, and they settled or tried to settle the cases.”

According to the D.A.’s office, over the past few years, the defendants allegedly set out to find businesses throughout Southern California where ADA violations related to access for the disabled might exist.

Rutherford was the point man in most of the actions, serving as the party-plaintiff represented by the lawyers, prosecutors alleged.

Prosecutors said the defendant has been involved in more than 200 ADA civil actions filed in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

“The District Attorney’s Office fully supports accessibility rights for disabled persons,” according to the agency statement. “The ADA laws are designed to help and protect disabled persons. The individuals who make false statements in court, and the attorneys who manipulate these laws, do so for the purpose of illegitimate financial gain.”

Darnell told CNS that he perceived the D.A.’s civil suit as an “attack on the ADA.”

“This is a law they don’t like,” he said. “Mr. Rutherford is disabled, and my clients have represented him and other disabled persons.”

Darnell did not know the number of people outside of Rutherford who had been represented by the four attorneys in ADA suits.

Darnell did not believe the county’s case would go to trial because “when a reasonable judge looks at the facts and the evidence, he’s going to side with us, and we will prevail.”