Erma L. Miller struck her first blow for disability rights in 1997. She sued Coco’s after one of its restaurants refused to serve her when she showed up with an assistance dog.
Coco’s settled the case, but Miller was just getting started. The Marriott hotel chain and a string of McDonald’s restaurants, among other defendants, would soon feel her wrath.
The 64-year-old Moorpark woman is behind a stack of multimillion-dollar lawsuits accusing business establishments of illegally refusing to accommodate disabled people who use assistance, or service, dogs. Miller and various relatives and associates have filed at least 21 discrimination claims in Los Angeles and San Diego, typically charging hotels, restaurants and others with “despicable” violations of civil rights laws, according to court records.
The targets of these lawsuits deny the charges and say that behind the lofty rhetoric hangs the odor of a scam.
They cite one case in which a federal judge found Miller’s tale of outrageous mistreatment to be “totally fabricated” and “nothing more than a sham.”
Also raising their suspicions is Miller’s practice of providing Rottweilers to other people, who took the dogs to businesses, got bounced and filed lawsuits.
Then there’s the involvement of Miller’s notorious ex-husband, Lynn Boyd Stites.
Stites is a disbarred lawyer who served a federal prison term for masterminding “the Alliance” insurance fraud scheme, which triggered one of the largest prosecutions of attorneys in U.S. history.
Stites became Miller’s co-plaintiff in two disability cases after his release from prison in 2001. He claimed that when Miller and her dog were refused service, he was snubbed too.
But his involvement goes deeper, some defendants say. Good Nite Inns Inc., which recently settled one case, claimed that Stites supplied dogs to people and paid them to visit targeted businesses with the aim of contriving lawsuits. “Stites is the mastermind behind this and a series of other dog discrimination cases which are totally fabricated,” according to court papers filed by the company.
Albert Davis, one of those who sued Good Nite Inns, said in a deposition that Stites was a member of the plaintiffs’ legal team. Davis’ lawyer, Samuel G. Jackson, contradicted his client, telling The Times, “I don’t even know what the guy [Stites] looks like.” Jackson accused Good Nite Inns in a court filing of trying “to besmirch the parties by spinning a tale” of Stites’ involvement.
Jackson, who also represents Miller, said in an interview that she “is out there doing good, crusading and getting change.” She believes that disabled people are entitled to “the same treatment the general public gets -- and she’s not going to settle for less.”
Miller and Stites declined interview requests.
Miller is no stranger to courtroom battles. She once sued the Internal Revenue Service for $182 million -- and won $1,000 -- for improper disclosure of taxpayer information. A federal appeals court rejected her bid for more, saying she had tried “to convert a proverbial molehill into Ft. Knox.”
The discrimination cases have been a real family affair. Miller, who has remained close to Stites despite their divorce in 1989, has been a plaintiff in at least 11 cases -- including two she filed against lockups where Stites was serving time. Because of an inherited condition called Charcot Marie Tooth syndrome, which can weaken the muscles in the arms and legs, Miller says she needs a service dog or wheelchair to get around.
Miller’s 90-year-old parents also served as plaintiffs in some cases before their deaths about three years ago. A substantial part of the research and paralegal work has been done by sons Aaron and Brandt Stites, both law school graduates who have passed the California bar exam but have not been admitted for reasons State Bar officials will not discuss.
Aaron Stites, 28, who has the same condition as his mother, is a plaintiff too. He has sued Marriott, claiming that several of its inns in California, Kansas and Ohio would not rent him a room because of his service dog. He also sued McDonald’s after allegedly being booted from restaurants in Encino and New York’s Times Square. That case ended in an undisclosed settlement.
He also has a pending claim against Hilton Hotels Corp., as well as one against the Great Western Forum stemming from an incident at a Los Angeles Kings hockey game six years ago. He declined to be interviewed.
More recently, the litigation has morphed to include claims of racial discrimination, with Miller serving as a co-plaintiff or chief witness for three African Americans in lawsuits against restaurants and hotels. Their claim: The establishments served Miller, who is white, when she came in with a dog, but would not do the same for them.
Three organizations -- the Activities Club, JEM Club and the Roe Assn. -- described as nonprofit associations formed to help disabled people, are also plaintiffs in some of the cases. Several California disability rights advocates contacted by The Times said they had never heard of the groups.
It’s common for blind people to use seeing-eye dogs, but people with other disabilities, such as deafness or difficulty walking, also may rely on assistance dogs.
Under California law and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, businesses with no-pets policies must make exception for patrons who need service dogs.
Yet enforcement is almost nonexistent and many businesses seem ignorant of the rule, disability rights groups say. They said violations were common, though they did not know the facts of the Miller-Stites cases.
But defendants in the Miller-Stites lawsuits say the cases are riddled with made-up facts and contrived confrontations in which the dogs serve as props. In court papers, Marriott denounced them as “litigation fraud.”
Certain recurring allegations have heightened their suspicions. For instance, in several cases, plaintiffs said that when they got the boot they were also prevented from using restrooms -- causing them to soil their clothing and deepening their emotional distress.
Also striking is that most encounters involved Rottweilers or Rottweiler mixes owned or boarded by Erma Miller. Fairly or not, these muscular dogs have a sinister image because of serious and even fatal attacks on people. Rottweilers can be trained to be capable and well-behaved service dogs, but some experts regard them as a dubious choice.
It’s a “common-sense thing not to have a kind of dog that people are going to be afraid of,” said Jorjan Powers, community relations director for the Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, Calif., which teaches courses on service-dog training.
At least three cases are scheduled for trial in the next few months. Others have been dismissed or were never actively pursued.
On Wednesday, the suit against Good Nite Inns by Davis and two other African American plaintiffs was settled on the eve of trial for undisclosed terms.
Court records show that Miller has been paid settlements at least twice: $110,000 from Coco’s in 1998 and an undisclosed sum from the Orra Thai restaurant in Panorama City last fall. In the Coco’s settlement, the chain also agreed to post signs welcoming patrons with service dogs, and to train employees on requirements of the law.
Her case against Marriott didn’t go so well.
The suit contended that Miller was illegally denied lodging at one of Marriott’s Fairfield Inns in Tucson in 1997, when Stites was incarcerated there. As a result, she was forced to search for a room late at night “in a strange city.”
Miller claimed that she also soiled her clothes because the Fairfield clerk would not let her use the bathroom. Embarrassed and nauseated, Miller said she spotted one of Marriott’s Courtyard inns near the Tucson airport. There too she allegedly was turned away because of her dog.
Finally, in the wee hours, Miller said, she got a room in a small motel whose name she could not remember.
Her case disintegrated in court. Despite Miller’s claim to be seriously disabled, it emerged that a month after the Tucson episode she broke her leg in a fall from the rear bumper of a pickup while unloading sacks of fertilizer. (Miller sued Mazda, claiming the bumper was defectively designed, in a case that eventually was settled.)
As part of her deposition, Marriott lawyers videotaped Miller with Giggy, the Rottweiler mix involved in the Marriott suit and several others. Giggy could not obey commands to sit, to pick up Miller’s cane or to help her through the door.
Although she claimed that Tucson was a strange city, Miller eventually admitted having been there at least 20 times.
Even more damaging, it turned out that when Miller entered the Fairfield Inn, she was already registered at a nearby Budget Inn -- where she customarily stayed while visiting Stites.
In a scathing ruling in April 2000, U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess used such phrases as “totally fabricated” and “no factual merit” to describe Miller’s claim.
He followed up with an extraordinary punishment, ordering Miller and her lawyers to pay Marriott about $500,000 in sanctions and legal fees. Marriott has not taken steps to collect the money.
A question permeating all of this litigation is the role of Lynn Stites. Defense lawyers have charged that he has orchestrated the actions, noting his involvement in the past in a litigation scheme. But they have fallen short of proving it, and sometimes evidence on the issue has been ruled inadmissible on grounds of relevance.
Long before Erma Miller’s first suit, Stites had earned a reputation as an able but hair-trigger litigator. He once filed a slander suit against a neighbor for calling him a name in the presence of a gardener, prompting several years of litigation.
His shrewd manipulation of insurance law brought him millions of dollars but ultimately caused his downfall.
Stites had exploited an arcane doctrine that under some circumstances allowed defendants with insurance coverage to choose their own counsel rather than accept a lawyer assigned by the insurer.
During the 1980s, Stites organized a clandestine network of attorneys who infiltrated complex civil cases in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties by getting insured defendants to hire them in place of their insurance company lawyers.
Posing as independent and, at times, snarling adversaries, they worked in concert to manufacture new legal controversies so that lawsuits would grow in complexity and cost.
In some cases, the lawyers paid kickbacks to clients for the right to defend them on the insurers’ dime. Stites essentially franchised the litigation, directing strategy and assigning lawyers to various defendants. His minions, in turn, kicked back a cut of their take -- paying in cash, precious metals, and improvements to his house.
Eventually, thirteen lawyers and five other people were convicted in what became known as the Alliance case after a participant used the term in a secretly taped conversation.
By the time of his indictment in April 1990, Stites had disappeared. While in hiding, he lived the high life under a series of assumed names. His fugitive odyssey took him from the ski resorts of Colorado to Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach, where he bought a condominium and a string of hurricane-damaged boats to refurbish and sell.
Tearing around the country in a maroon sports coupe he bought with money wired from Switzerland, he picked up speeding tickets in several states but paid the fines and peeled away without revealing his true identity. He was arrested at a speed trap in southern Illinois when a state trooper spotted piles of cash in the back of the car.
Returned to Southern California, he was convicted in 1993 and served about eight years of a 10-year sentence.
He was still in custody in the fall of 2000 when three bulky legal files, which included some documents from Miller’s lawsuit against Marriott, mysteriously turned up in the Santa Monica office of Marriott attorney David Raizman. They had no return address, just a stamp that read: “Found Loose in the Mail.”
Raizman was amazed to discover that they belonged to Stites and had been routed to him through a bizarre mistake. It happened as Stites, nearing the end of his sentence, was being transferred from a Texas prison to a halfway house in San Diego. His records were supposed to follow, but the package broke in transit. As is customary in such cases, postal workers scooped up the papers and, seeing Raizman’s name on them, assumed they were his.
Raizman had long suspected that Stites might be secretly directing the litigation from prison. Stites’ possession of the Marriott documents strengthened the hunch.
“I was not surprised that Lynn Stites was involved in these lawsuits,” Raizman recalled. “But I certainly didn’t expect to receive confirmation from out of the clear blue sky.”