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L.A. man hustles claims or serves justice?

May 11, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Is Brian Sullivan abusing the legal system, or is he crusading for the rights of disabled Americans? Sullivan uses lawsuits - dozens and dozens of them - to force local businesses to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.Sullivan is notorious in the L.A. court system. He's a convicted felon who impersonated an attorney for many years. He now uses that legal expertise to sue small businesses.

Most plaintiffs file suit under a California statute that guarantees a minimum of $4,000 in damages per incident.

"So to say, 'Oh, I want money.' Of course I do. It's $4,000 per incident," said Sullivan. "Does that mean, you know, I'm a super bad guy? No."

Sullivan has made it his business to sue small businesses. He lost his leg to diabetes six years ago. Getting around in a wheelchair isn't easy, and many L.A.-area businesses are not accessible to the disabled.

"I take advantage of the fact that these people fail to comply," said Sullivan. "I mean, it's a compliance issue."

Court records show Sullivan has filed at least 70 lawsuits since 2006. Sometimes he'll hit one particular area hard, like downtown L.A.'s Toy District. Court documents filed by Sullivan show 14 lawsuits in a 12-block area, all filed within three days. Court documents allege he visited 14 stores on the same day - Jan. 22, 2010.

Two weeks later, Sullivan filed 11 more lawsuits in the Jewelry District on same day.

"I set goals in my mind, pick a day," said Sullivan. "I will go out, attempt to go in a store, I can't get in."

One of the dozens of stores Sullivan has sued is Galaxy Toys in downtown L.A. Sullivan argued that some of the aisles in the store were too narrow for his wheelchair.

Sullivan wears a hidden camera when he visits stores in search of violations, but many of the stores he sues have their own video cameras.

"I want to fight," said Don Jung, Dowa Cosmetics. "Even if I lose, I want to do whatever I can do."

Jung checked his surveillance cameras for the day Sullivan claims he was there. Jung says during the whole day Sullivan says he visited, there was no person in a wheelchair caught on camera.

Sullivan told us that sometimes he gets his dates mixed up.

"I've got probably 100 videos," said Sullivan. "But sometimes I go insane trying to keep track of defendants."

Galaxy Toys showed up to small claims court recently along with 21 other people caught up in Sullivan's lawsuits. They say he's abusing the system.

"He files lawsuits day-in and day-out as a living," said Oriente.

Small business owners in downtown L.A.'s Toy District have banded together, sharing information and legal strategies.

"I'm not the one failing to comply with the law," said Sullivan. "They are."

Sullivan is right, at least in some cases. David Geffen, a disability rights attorney, says it's important to look at the results of these lawsuits.

"This is a gray area," said Geffen. "If they're only doing it to make money and they're not helping businesses become more accessible, they're not helping anybody except themselves. But if they're out there suing a lot of businesses because a lot of businesses are violating the law and forcing those businesses to change, then they're doing something good for everybody."

Mohan Hotchandani runs Mike's Smoke Shop, located on Hollywood Boulevard. Hotchandani settled with Sullivan for $600 and says Sullivan admitted to him he's in it for the money.

But it's taxpayer money, too. In all but two of the cases of 70 cases looked at by Eyewitness News, Sullivan got his court fees waived.

But in order to accomplish this, Sullivan committed fraud. According to court documents, Sullivan lied about how many lawsuits he's filed in a year. He checked a box indicating he has not filed more than 12 other claims within the past 12 months. That's clearly not true. But by lying, Sullivan gets a break on court fees.

Do the math on just the 39 cases he's filed in the last year, and you'll get $3,900 in taxpayer money coming out of an already over-burdened court system.

"Bring it to the clerk's attention," Sullivan said, when confronted with the fact. "I mean look, you're the news. Bring it to the clerk's attention."

Sullivan has a firm grasp on the law. So much so, he admits to having practiced law without a license.

"I did it for about 17 years," said Sullivan. "I had about 600 trials."

Sullivan was arrested for it twice and served two years in state prison.

"I live by the law," said Sullivan. "What I do is based upon what the law allows, mandates. So I have no issue with what I do."

Because Sullivan isn't required to tell the court when he settles, we don't know how much he's received as a result of the lawsuits. However, we know that one store was ordered to pay him $2,499. Nine cases were dismissed outright.

At least six store owners got a letter from the small claims court commissioner as part of the judgment in their favor. The letter reads, "The court is convinced that Mr. Sullivan never really sought to patronize the stores, but instead went from store to store with a video camera to document the problems with access for a lawsuit."

Sullivan told Eyewitness News just last week he does intend to keep filing lawsuits.

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