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Lawyer weighs-in on obese 'serial filer'

Local businesses aren’t helpless against Jose Velez, a Florida man who's filed numerous Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits against businesses across the country, including three restaurants in Medford, according to a Southern California lawyer who beat Velez at his own game last year.

But businesses can’t overlook the same disability laws that “serial filers” such as Velez capitalize on, says Ara Sahelian, a wheelchair-bound lawyer whose practice in Laguna Hills, California, specializes in defending businesses in ADA lawsuits.

Sahelian says he battled Velez in a California lawsuit filed in 2018 that’s similar to the $100,000 lawsuits Velez filed Sept. 16 in U.S. District Court in Medford against three Southern Oregon restaurants: Rosario’s Italian Restaurant, Jasper’s Cafe and Noho’s Hawaiian Cafe.

“As far as I’m concerned, every single lawsuit that he’s filed in the state of Oregon can be challenged and thrown out,” Sahelian says.

The crux of Sahelian’s defense is that the Americans With Disabilities Act doesn’t allow monetary damages; it only allows courts to require businesses to make their stores more accessible for people with disabilities.

“The restaurant owners don’t know that,” Sahelian says.

Velez has filed numerous lawsuits across the country, including 27 in December 2018 alone, according to Sahelian.

Velez typically offers the business a chance to settle the case out of court. Sahelian warns businesses that paying Velez off without addressing their barriers to accessibility will leave them just as vulnerable to another lawsuit.

Velez is among dozens of individuals known to file ADA lawsuits, according to multiple law firm websites.

“The thing to do is to immediately fix the restaurant and let the judge know it’s fixed,” Sahelian says. “The restaurant owners don’t know that.”

Many restaurant owners are under the misconception that if their establishment was built before the ADA went into effect in 1993, their business is exempt from accessibility guidelines.

“If it’s readily achievable, you have to fix it,” Sahelian says. “There’s no such thing as grandfathering anything in.”

Being wheelchair-bound himself, Sahelian says he’s able to illustrate with businesses the accessibility issues highlighted in lawsuits, and he helps them find creative solutions to make their businesses accessible.

For instance, Sahelian had a restaurant knock out a wall to convert a pair of noncompliant mens and womens restrooms into one unisex bathroom with enough space to accommodate a wheelchair user.

Under ADA law, a wheelchair user needs enough space in the restroom to enter and turn around, and in a restroom stall needs enough space to park their chair in front or to the side of the toilet.

Sahelian believes simpler ADA guidelines would make it easier for small businesses.

The government’s 2010 ADA standards, available online, is more than 8,000 words and comes in at 18 pages single spaced.

Sahelian says Velez — and other frequent filers like him — can be intimidating to a small business, but Sahelian claims he knows how to defend a lawsuit filed by Velez.

Sahelian represented two defendants in an $80,000 lawsuit filed by Velez in U.S. District Court in San Diego, and believes his firm is the first to have a case filed by Velez dismissed without the restaurants paying Velez.

The California suit has similarities to the Medford suit, with Velez identifying himself as a patron of the restaurant with “mobility-related limitations because morbid obesity and a binge-eating disorder.” Velez claims his obesity make him a disabled person under ADA and state law.

Velez listed about 20 accessibility violations in the California suit against Il Fornaio Cucina Italiana and Tartine Cafe & Bistro in Coronado, along with a Chula Vista restaurant that settled with Velez out of court.

In the suit, Velez claimed the restaurants ignore “the daily experience of thousands of people who cannot shop, transact personal business, visit the doctor or enjoy recreation like most people take for granted, because so many public accommodations across the country, like defendants, have ignored the reasonable requirements of the ADA.”

Il Fornaio, an Italian restaurant chain with more than 20 locations, and Tartine, a bistro with one location, chipped in together to retain Sahelian and fight the lawsuit against them.

“We decided something didn’t smell right,” Sahelian said.

“A cursory review of all the cases he’s brought in the Northern, Central and the Southern District in 2018 reveals that he prefers to settle cases — quickly,” Sahelian wrote in a motion to dismiss in January.

On Feb. 22, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo ordered the California lawsuit dismissed because Velez “lacks statutory standing to sue for the ADA violations alleged.” The one-page judgment notes that Velez filed three insufficient complaint documents, and ruled that “further amendment would be futile.”

Sahelian encourages any restaurants sued by Velez to call each other and cooperate, find a lawyer and challenge him.

“Just don’t give in,” Sahelian said. “He’s not going to stop — somebody’s gotta stop him.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

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