Olga S. Dmytriyeva walked into Chicago’s federal courthouse on Tuesday hoping to fast-track sanctions against embattled attorney John L. Steele, who is best-known for accusing individuals across the country of illegally downloading pornography.
Instead, it is Dmytriyeva’s firm, the Voelker Litigation Group, facing the threat of sanctions.
It is just the latest turn in a case involving Steele, who was hit with a seven-count complaint by the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission last month accusing him of fraud and bad-faith litigation during a campaign of porn-related lawsuits that ended in 2013.
This year, Steele has filed more than a dozen lawsuits against local businesses or government facilities in both federal and state courts in Chicago.
The cases accuse defendants of running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes a provision allowing lawyers who bring cases on behalf of a disabled person to recoup fees.
Some defendants also claim Steele is willing to drop the cases for a cash settlement rather than forcing changes to accommodate the disabled, a charge he calls “patently untrue.”
In a motion seeking to reassign 12 of Steele’s cases in front of a single judge, Dmytriyeva called the lawsuits “specious.” She argued that many of the cases will result in sanctions against Steele, saying there is evidence he solicited disabled clients to sue businesses they may have never visited.
At least three defendants named in Steele’s ADA cases filed motions opposing the attempt to reassign the cases based on relatedness.
In court on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Milton I. Shadur admonished the reassignment motion, calling it “thoughtless” and “patently frivolous.” He called the motion’s reference to sanctions against Steele “pejorative.”
He said the motion did not meet the standards of relatedness set forth by the Northern District of Illinois Local Rule 40.4, most notably the requirement that cases must be “susceptible of disposition in a single proceeding.”
Shadur said he would demand the Voelker Litigation Group pay for the time and cost spent by other defendants’ lawyers who opposed the motion. Stressing he was not expressing any opinion on the “substantive viability of the case,” he gave the firm until Oct. 13 to explain why it shouldn’t be sanctioned.
“I don’t know why the clients of those responding lawyers should have to bear the tariff for filing that groundless motion,” Shadur said, following what he called “a course on reassignment on relatedness” that lasted about 15 minutes.
Dmytriyeva responded that the motion was an attempt to draw the court’s attention to errors in Steele’s case that were apparently revealed in an August WBBM-TV report.
In the report, one of Steele’s plaintiffs, Mary Mizerk, told a reporter that she received a phone call from a Steele paralegal asking her to participate in the lawsuit.
“We sought to benefit the defendants in all the cases and to save money for all of them,” Dmytriyeva told Shadur.
At that point, Steele, who arrived late to the hearing, stood up and asked Shadur if he could approach the bench to respond to “attacks being made against me.”
In his remarks, he largely reiterated Shadur’s points, stressing the cases were only related insofar as he was the attorney filing them.
In a brief phone interview last month, Steele denounced his plaintiff Mizerk’s statements to WBBM. He said it is not true that she was solicited by Mark Lutz, whom she called Steele’s paralegal.
“No, that’s not true,” Steele said. “I don’t believe that’s what she said and I certainly wouldn’t characterize how she became my client as someone reaching out to her.”
Asked how he met Mizerk, Steele responded: “With all due respect, how I interact with my clients is not really something I discuss with the news media.”
Mizerk provided more information in an affidavit filed Sept. 8 in the case, Charles Mapp v. City Colleges of Chicago District No. 508, No. 1:15-cv-03800.
Mizerk’s affidavit said she met an unnamed employee of Steele’s Accessibility Law Group while he was speaking to a group of people outside the single-room occupancy building where she lives. She later called him and Steele filed four lawsuits on her behalf.
These types of ADA lawsuits, known as Title III cases, have become increasingly popular, with 63 percent more filed in 2014 than the prior year according to a study published by Seyfarth, Shaw LLP in April.
Minh N. Vu, the Washington, D.C., partner at Seyfarth, Shaw who wrote the study and leads the firm’s ADA Title III specialty practice team, said the lawsuits can be abused by plaintiff lawyers.
“When a business is confronted with one of these lawsuits, the question is, ‘Do we pay these folks to go away? Or do we spend the money to defend the lawsuit?’” Vu said.
“Even if there is no violation and the business prevails, it would cost at least $30,000 or $40,000 to defend.”
Back in the courtroom, Steele interjected after Shadur instructed Dmytriyeva to respond to his Rule 11 sanctions order by Oct. 13.
Steele asked the judge that he be given a chance to respond to that motion, anticipating it may include disparaging claims against him or his clients.
Shadur denied the request, saying he could not foresee what he was giving Steele the right to respond to.
“Only Mrs. Shadur gets blank checks,” he said, drawing the only laughs of the hearing.
Asked about the hearing outside the courtroom, Steele said, “A lot of attorneys today just want to file motions to sort of sling mud.” He added, however, that he was unsure if that was what happened in the case at hand.
Steele owes an answer by Sept. 30 to the ARDC complaint filed against him, according to Deputy Administrator and Chief Counsel James J. Grogan.