By: Pablo Lopez
For nearly four decades, Reza and Fatemeh Saniefar and their three children greeted customers and ensured they received a good meal at the family’s Zlfred’s restaurant in central Fresno.
The restaurant on Blackstone Avenue – known for its Mediterranean food and signature shish kebab sandwich – was open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But the immigrant family from Iran didn’t mind the long hours.
“We appreciated what we had,” said Moji Saniefar, the youngest sibling. “It sustained the family and gave us a good life.”
Most of all, the restaurant gave her father a reason to live, she said. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Iranian Air Force, but when he and his family arrived in Clovis in the 1970s, he spoke no English and had no skills.
“The restaurant was like his fourth child,” she said.
Her fond memories were crushed when the Mission Law Firm in San Jose sued her parents in July 2014, claiming Zlfred’s was inaccessible to disabled people and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The lawsuit devastated him,” Moji Saniefar said. “He didn’t want to operate it anymore.”
What’s worse, she said, is that Zlfred’s ended up closing and her father died before a federal judge in March this year dismissed the ADA lawsuit.
“He never got to know that he won the case,” Saniefar said.
Now, Saniefar, 46, is fighting back.
In a tribute to her father, she filed a lawsuit last month in U.S. District Court in Fresno against Mission Law Firm and its predecessor, Moore Law Firm, alleging that the two firms violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by forming “a criminal enterprise (and) using the Americans with Disability Act to institute actions based on false allegations of disability and injury (in order) to collect quick settlements from California businesses and citizens.”
In essence, “The defendants have perverted the purpose of the ADA … for their own greed and financial gain,” the lawsuit says.
The federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as the RICO Act, was enacted in 1970 to combat organized crime syndicates. Since then, the RICO Act has been expanded to civil courtrooms where defendants faces heavy financial penalties if convicted.
Sandiefar’s lawsuit identifies several defendants, including Ronald Moore, 58, of Clovis, who has been a plaintiff in hundreds of ADA lawsuits, and his former sister-in-law, Tanya Moore, an attorney who operated the Moore Law Firm in San Jose. Tanya Moore has filed more than 1,000 ADA lawsuits against small businesses in Fresno and the Valley, court records say. Tanya Moore was previously married to Ronald Moore’s brother, Kenneth Randolph Moore.
Fresno criminal defense attorney Leroy Falk is president of Mission Law Firm and a defendant in the RICO lawsuit; Tanya Moore is the secretary. They contend the allegations in the RICO lawsuit are false.
The RICO lawsuit alleges Tanya Moore and her ex-husband, who quit practicing law in March 2015, and the firm’s chief paralegal, Marejka Sacks, are the ringleaders of the enterprise.
The lawsuit alleges that Tanya Moore has knowingly filed numerous court documents with false pleadings and declarations on behalf of Ronald Moore and other disabled plaintiffs. Sacks is accused of doing the bulk of the legal work, even though she is not an attorney.
Looking for violations
The alleged fraudulent scheme began around 2009 when Tanya Moore and Kenneth Moore, who goes by Randy, held meetings in Fresno to recruit disabled plaintiffs. Attendees were told that they would be given a finder’s fee every time they became a plaintiff in an ADA complaint.
The complaint alleges that Randy and Tanya Moore told the would-be plaintiffs that “they need not worry about actually experiencing any difficulty, discomfort or embarrassment” inside the establishments to be sued. Instead, Randy and Tanya Moore allegedly told the would-be plaintiffs that they would send law firm employees, including family members, into the establishments to find ADA violations.
Therefore, the Moores knew that their plaintiffs’ allegations of “personally encountering barriers” and experiencing difficulties were false, the lawsuit says.
The focus of the complaint is on Ronald Moore, who’s accused of making false disability claims against Zlfred’s. The Mission Law Firm then allegedly committed fraud by filing a lawsuit against Zlfred’s based on Ronald Moore’s claims, the lawsuit says.
According to court records, Ronald Moore testified that he visited Zlfred’s on April 14, 2014. While using a wheelchair, he got stuck in the bathroom and hollered for help.
Sandiefar said Ronald Moore’s account is “pure fantasy” because he never visited the restaurant that day, according to her father’s account before his death last December.
And under oath, Ronald Moore said in court declarations and depositions that he is unable to stand and walk without a cane or object to lean on, the lawsuit says. Saniefar said she has videotape of Ronald Moore walking by himself and without the use of a cane or any other aid.
In an email, Falk denied the allegations, saying the RICO complaint is a retaliatory lawsuit “by a very wealthy family that is unhappy they were sued and want to exact revenge.”
“Mr. Moore absolutely visited the restaurant,” Falk said in the email.
“The allegations that there is some high-level racketeering conspiracy would be laughable if they were not so defamatory and sensational. The Saniefars have not produced one shred of evidence in support of their position for the simple reason there is none.”
Ronald Moore has never said he can’t walk, Falk said. Instead, he is substantially limited in his ability to walk because of chronic pain, a disability that has been confirmed by a medical expert, he said.
The Saniefars hired private investigators to take surveillance video of Ronald Moore. After more than 77 hours of video that spanned months, the investigators testified that they never saw Mr. Moore out in public without his wheelchair, the email from Falk said.
ADA as shakedown?
The Americans with Disabilities Act, adopted in 1990, was enacted to ensure access for the disabled to public accommodations. But critics contend that some lawyers have abused the act to shake down small business owners who are more inclined to pay off plaintiffs because they lack the means to engage in expensive litigation.
Since 2009, the Moore and Mission law firms have filed an estimated 1,400 ADA lawsuits on behalf of the disabled in the San Joaquin Valley, from Kern to Fresno to Tuolumne counties, court records say. Ronald Moore has been a plaintiff in more than 250 of these lawsuits.
In the email, Falk said lawyers have to sue business owners because ADA relies on civil enforcement. “It has been around for 27 years, and yet businesses still refuse to comply. Why? Because it will cost them money,” he said.
Though a nominal sum is required to fix the ADA problems, Falk said, businesses are hostile to disabled people “because they dare to demand access rather than be relegated to the dark corners of society.”
He further stated the “shakedown” analysis is flawed because the vast majority of the businesses who are sued were noncompliant. “If not for a few committed individuals, the purpose of the ADA would not be met,” he said. “ Look around Fresno – there have been significant access changes since ADA lawsuits were filed there.”
However, Saniefar, who has a law practice in Burlingame in San Mateo County, contends in her RICO lawsuit that the Moore and Mission law firms target “mom and pop” and immigrant business owners because they don’t have the money to fight back. To avoid costly litigation, these small business owners quickly reach financial settlements with the law firms. And in many settlements, improvements to become ADA compliant aren’t even done, the lawsuit alleges.
Veteran Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian said the RICO lawsuit is a novel approach and could be successful if Saniefar has the evidence to back up her claims. “If (Moji Saniefar) can show a pattern of practice, then I think it has legs.”
The RICO suit says Ronald Moore filed his federal ADA complaint against Zlfred’s because he was denied the “full and equal enjoyment” of the restaurant’s goods and services. The complaint says he parked in a handicap spot that was part of the ramp to the business, which made it difficult for him to use the ramp. It also says the door to the establishment was too heavy for a person in a wheelchair to open and that the restaurant’s restroom didn’t have enough floor space for him to maneuver his wheelchair.
After the Saniefars were sued, they hired a certified access specialist and a contractor to remove the barriers, court records say. Once the ADA issues were fixed, federal Judge Sheila Oberto dismissed the complaint on March 29.
“My parents complied with the law,” said Saniefar, who said the Americans with Disabilities Act is a good law, but business owners should be given sufficient time to fix problems before they are sued.
Saniefar alleges that Ronald Moore falsely testified that he went to Zlfred’s on April 14, 2014, and got stuck in the bathroom and had to yell for help. She said her witnesses have testified in Ronald Moore’s ADA complaint against Zlfred’s that “this didn’t happen.”
“My father knew all of his customers,” Moji Saniefar said. “If
Moore entered the restaurant, my father would have seen him. And if someone was yelling for help, my father would have remembered that.”
Zlfred’s was at 4030 N. Blackstone Ave., south of Ashlan Avenue. Since its closure, the Saniefars have leased the restaurant, which is now called Yem Kabob.
Saniefar said the RICO complaint gives her the opportunity to clear her father’s name. “My father was a proud man. A seeker of fairness. A workaholic,” she said.
The family left Iran in 1977 after it was taken over by a totalitarian regime and settled in Clovis, said Saniefar, a 1988 graduate of Clovis High School. Because Reza Saniefar’s military skills, honors and achievements didn’t transfer to a career here, he had to start over, his daughter said.
In 1979, he purchased Zlfred’s from Gunnar Bay, who got his shish kebab recipe from an ex-wife of King Hussein of Jordan, according to a Bee article from October 1972. As the story goes, the king’s ex-wife had visited Bay’s Golden Key Motel in downtown Fresno and “she personally sat down in the kitchen and gave the recipe to Bay.”
Once Reza Saniefar took over Zlfred’s, he and his family became fixtures there. “We all worked at the restaurant,” Saniefar said. “I was the hostess and waitress. I even washed the dishes.”
Saniefar said her father worked at Zlfred’s nearly every day until he was 80. He enjoyed chatting with his customers, many of whom called him Mr. Zlfred’s. Because the clientele were longtime customers, they were considered friends, Saniefar said. Many customers were elderly, she said. Some were disabled. She said it wouldn’t make good business sense to discriminate against them.
But all of of the family’s hard work ended when Zlfred’s got sued, she said.
“My father didn’t deserve this,” Moji Saniefar said. “Zlfred’s was more than just work to him. It was his passion and hobby.”