JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The number of local businesses targeted by lawsuits over violating federal disability rules keeps growing, and one of the owner of one of the businesses claims to have evidence the plaintiff was not in the store.
The I-TEAM has learned about 250 businesses may have received demand letters or lawsuits over lack of Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, according to an attorney who is filing suit claiming fraud and civil conspiracy against attorney Robert Gibson and his disabled client, Wanda Moore.
Together, the two have filed 40 of the 50 ADA lawsuits the I-TEAM has documented.
In written communication, Gibson is adamant Moore has visited each and every business she’s suing, but one local business believes it has photographic proof that Moore was never in the business.
That’s what two attorneys representing one of the businesses being sued is trying to answer. They believe the federal ADA compliance law being misused and, more directly, asking if businesses are being set up?
“Why can you get something from me when I don’t have nothing? It’s like you stab me in the back,” said Eddie Valez, the 79-year-old owner of Latin Creations in San Souci.
Valez said he hasn’t slept since this federal ADA compliance lawsuit was filed last month by Gibson and Moore.
“Sometimes I go without eating because I can’t eat because of my throat,” Valez said. “I see my wife crying. I see my daughter worrying about me. I see people that love me that say, ‘Eddie don’t worry, everything will be OK,’ and that’s what upsets me.”
Valez was too upset to meet with two attorneys from Thoele Drach on Tuesday as they looked over evidence with his wife and daughter. The attorneys said 15 small businesses want to join their lawsuit to sue Gibson and Moore for fraud.
“They are saying she came to purchase fried green tomatoes, and we don’t sell fried tomatoes here,” said Beatrice Chandler,” Valez’s daughter.
Chandler said in the demand letter, it said Moore had been to the business around May 16. As proof, they attached a photo of the toilet. But Latin Creations had replaced that toilet on May 1, nearly three weeks earlier. She pointed to a gap in the paint as visual proof.
A source told the I-TEAM that electronic records show the photo was taken April 27.
Attorney Justin Drach said that’s a problem for the Gibson and Moore.
“We would love to hear from some of these investigators that went out to these businesses, took pictures and gathered evidence,” Drach said.
If an investigator was sent to a business to scope it out before Wanda Moore visited, that would be problematic under the law.
Businesses like Latin Creations tell News4Jax they understand the seriousness of being compliant with the ADA. Chandler said the bathroom renovations completed prior to the demand letter from Gibson’s office arrived is proof of that.
Valez said Gibson suggested the case could be settled for $3,900, but he will not paying Gibson, but will fight back. If he’s forced to pay Gibson in the end, he’ll have to close the business.
“Of course I’m scared, I have nothing else,” he said.
The I-TEAM has asked Gibson’s firm for comment on the Latin Creations’ suit, but had not received a response by 6 p.m. On Monday, the firm sent a statement saying it will fight the fraud and civil conspiracy counter suit filed by Thoele Drach, maintaining their cases are factual.