Two defendants have been caught tampering with a witness in a lawsuit against a San Jose law firm that has sued thousands of California small businesses for minor accessibility violations. A federal judge last month determined that an attorney and a compliance consultant linked to the Mission Law Firm had illegally eavesdropped on a phone call with a witness and later coached him to act dumb on the stand.
The Mission Law Firm, headed by attorney Tanya Moore, has become notorious for filing countless lawsuits against small restaurants and shops, including ones in Menlo Park and Mountain View, for violations under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Many small business owners describe the lawsuits as "shakedowns." These so-called "drive-by" lawsuits have seized on asphalt cracks, table heights and faded parking lines to threaten large violation fees. In most cases, the business owners agree to pay out-of-court settlements to avoid the legal cost of defending themselves.
Court records show that Moore's firm has sued more than 450 businesses in the greater Bay Area and reportedly upward of 2,000 across the state over accessibility violations. Businesses in Menlo Park have been targeted in these suits, including a Chevron station, Jeffrey's Hamburgers and Jason's Cafe, which closed on May 1 because the business was hit by multiple lawsuits alleging that the building housing the cafe does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
While the Mission Law Firm has attracted scorn in the business community, it has rarely been challenged in court over its practice.
That changed when Tanya Moore and her colleagues were hit with a civil suit last year. Burlingame-based attorney Moji Saniefar filed a sweeping case against the Mission Law Firm and its roster of frequent ADA plaintiffs, alleging they were essentially operating a criminal enterprise that should be prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
Moore's attorneys did not respond to a request for comment by the Mountain View Voice.
The case is personal for Saniefar: her father's restaurant in Fresno closed as a result of one of Moore's lawsuits, and it took her family three years to fight the case. The case later fell apart after the disabled plaintiff represented by Moore, who alleged he was trapped in his wheelchair in the restaurant's restroom, was later found walking.
The new allegations of witness tampering center on Moore's ex-husband, Randy Moore, and her son, Geoshua Levinson.
Randy Moore has served as a frequent plaintiff attorney in similar ADA and safe drinking water lawsuits. Levinson allegedly operates as a scout for the law firm, visiting businesses in advance and surreptitiously photographing the interior. Any violations that are found are later packaged into a lawsuit with a disabled person listed as the plaintiff, Saniefar's suit alleges.
In cases when defendants challenge the allegations, Levinson has provided sworn declarations in support of his findings, referring to himself as a certified access specialist (CASp). Often these declarations are enough to convince business owners that they will lose the lawsuit, and they agree to a settlement. In some cases, Levinson has later been hired by businesses to help them become ADA-compliant.
Saniefar was suspicious of Levinson's credentials. In his 2010 CASp application, Levinson asserted he met the minimal work experience requirements, claiming he had worked as a project manager for four years starting in 2006, when he would have been 16 years old. Lying to obtain a state contractor license is a criminal act.
Saniefar filed a subpoena to question Levinson's listed employer during those years, a contractor named Timothy McAdams.
McAdams, who now lives in Florida, had a longstanding friendship with Randy Moore and Levinson. As he later told the court, McAdams said he "panicked" when he first received notice in March that he was being subpoenaed in the case.
He quickly called up Randy Moore, and asked what the whole matter was about. Moore encouraged him to call up Saniefar, and let him listen in on the conversation.
During the conversation, Moore sent a string of 69 text messages to McAdams, essentially prompting him on what to say to her. These texts include questions for him to ask her ("What's this about?" and "Tell me what you are after"), as well as suggestions for him to not to disclose anything ("Stop answering" and "I don't know anything"). Moore's texts also asked McAdams to affirm that Levinson had worked as his project manager.
McAdams later testified that he was ignorant of what was going on. When he spoke to Randy Moore and Levinson, they both urged him to say as little as possible.
"You don't have to answer any questions at all. You can just sit there and be stupid," McAdams recalled Levinson telling him.
In his deposition, McAdams said he was frustrated that he was thrown in the middle of this case. Instead of downplaying what he knew, he decided to tell everything he could.
"I was angry that I got drug into something that I have no clue what the hell it's about," McAdams said. "And I'm being told to not remember things that I don't even know."
McAdams testified that Levinson had never worked as his project manager. In fact, Levinson's only experience working for him was a one-week stint when he was shadowing him. He also revealed that Levinson and Moore had repeatedly tried to influence what he would say in his deposition.
With this testimony, Saniefar in April filed for sanctions against both defendants, urging the court to see their actions as criminal witness tampering.
"It was shocking, you just don't think that people would do that, especially an attorney licensed through the California state bar," Saniefar said. "This shows that level of egregious conduct that two of the defendants have been engaged in to protect their enterprise."
Attorneys representing the Mission Law Firm dismissed McAdams' testimony, describing him as a drug addict and alcoholic who had mental problems. They assured the court that Randy Moore could only hear McAdams when he listened in on the phone call. They insisted that Moore's text messages telling McAdams to say nothing were actually evidence that he thought the phone call was a bad idea.
In a hearing last month, U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill was scathing in his response. He repeatedly called out Moore and Levinson for telling blatant lies in their testimony.
"The circumstantial evidence here is screaming loudly," O'Neill said. "The bottom line here is that there was witness tampering by both of the defendants ... and the court finds it is such serious witness tampering that the court cannot condone it."
In his ruling, the judge struck the answers by both defendants, a rare action that means the actions by the defendants have been so inappropriate that the court is revoking their ability to defend the case.
The ruling against Moore and Levinson is a major win for the larger RICO lawsuit, which includes numerous other defendants. That case is still ongoing.
The new allegations follow other criminal charges against other ADA-lawsuit attorneys. In May, Scott Johnson, a Sacramento attorney who had also filed thousands of ADA lawsuits, was indicted on federal tax fraud charges. Johnson had allegedly understated his income from his legal settlements. He currently faces up to three years in prison.
Despite the recent scrutiny, Tanya Moore and her colleagues have continued to file ADA lawsuits against local businesses. In recent months, her firm has sued businesses including the San Jose restaurant Mini Gourmet, a Burlington Coat Factory department store in Campbell, and the Palo Alto cafe Pluto's.
Michele Bernal, co-owner of Blossom True Hardware in Mountain View, said she was savoring the turn of events. Moore had targeted her shop for $20,000 in 2013, she said.
"It's good to hear that this is all coming back to bite her in the butt," Bernal said. "Hopefully, she's going to get her law license revoked."