Ask almost anyone who has sued Wal-Mart over the past half century, and they will tell you that getting justice out of the giant retailer is like pulling teeth. That may be a good sign for a California dentist who claims that Wal-Mart conspired with others to steal his concept for a dental clinic inside of big box stores.
Just before Christmas, Dr. Kianor Shahmohammadi ("Shah"), 32, filed a lawsuit in Riverside County, Calif. Superior Court, naming Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Comfort Care Dental Management (CCDM), a Dental Service Organization, as defendants charged with counts of civil conspiracy, misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of contract and confidence, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, and other "violation of laws, requirements, and regulations."
Shah, who was born in Tehran, Iran but later became a U.S. citizen, now lives in Irvine, Calif. He did his undergraduate work at Western Illinois University, and received his Doctor of Medical Dentistry degree from Southern Illinois University in 2006. He is currently an MBA student at Brandman University.
According to Dr. Shah, in late 2008, he developed plans for opening low-cost, full-service dental offices inside big-box retailers: "I got the idea of opening an in-store dental clinic one day when I was watching a Wal-Mart ad on TV. I developed a 400 page business plan. I wanted to bring down the cost of dental care."
Dr. Shah traveled to Bentonville, Ark. to present his idea to a roomful of Wal-Mart executives. After months of negotiation, the retailer initially committed to trying Dr. Shah's in-store clinics -- but the retailer subsequently informed Shah that it had changed its mind, and had no interest in dental clinics. Shah had Wal-Mart sign a non-disclosure agreement prior to the meeting to prevent the company from disclosing his plans without his consent.
But Dr. Shah claims that Wal-Mart then revealed his plans to Kent Reeves, a former Wal-Mart Vice President of New Business Development, and Ken Antos, a restaurant partner who owns more than 2,000 Subway stores inside Wal-Marts. In 2012, Wal-Mart opened a dental clinic inside its store in Moreno Valley, California, managed by dentist Christopher Comfort of CCDM, Reeves and Antos. (Dr. Comfort deserves his own sidebar for his six stormy months as Chairman of the Nevada GOP.) Shah says in his litigation that the Moreno Valley clinic was based almost entirely on his specifications, even down to the type of dental chairs used.
In one of the more bizarre twists in the story, in late 2011, Dr. Shah moved from Illinois to California. "Needing a job," the lawsuit says, Dr. Shah responded to a Craigslist add placed by Comfort Care seeking a dentist for an in-store clinic. In April of 2012, Shah was hired to work in the clinic that he had conceptualized. Dr.Shah writes that he "quickly realized" that Comfort's dental office was "almost an exact replica" of the dental office that Shah had shown Wal-Mart almost three years earlier.
At the grand opening of the Wal-Mart dental clinic, Shah said it was "crystal clear" to him that the defendants had "stolen" his business model. "It was the strangest day in my life," Shah told me. When Wal-Mart saw Dr. Shah at the opening ceremony, they informed Dr. Comfort that he had "unknowingly hired the very man" that had designed the dental clinic. The defendants then agreed to send Shah home, on the pretext that he refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement as part of his job acceptance.
By the time he got home, Shah says he was "greeted with an email telling him that his services were no longer needed due to the direction of the company." "I had planned to work there for a couple of months," Shah notes, "and see if I could work myself up into management." Instead, his career at Wal-Mart lasted less than one day.
In his litigation, Shah says that Wal-Mart "repeatedly lied... about its plans to open dental offices in Wal-Mart stores across the country." Shah has asked for a trial by jury, and for compensatory and punitive damages. "In 2009, the valuation and growth potential of my company was tremendous," Shah says.
"The mission of my dental project was to increase access to health care in rural areas," Shah told me, "to reduce dental care prices, accept all insurances -- including Medicaid -- and to create jobs along the way. Wal-Mart could have easily helped me provide a solution to the dental care access crisis in our society -- but they chose to operate my model in a highly profitable fee-for-service approach, with their own people."
I wanted Wal-Mart from the start, because I needed a place with high foot traffic for the model to succeed. I promised my investors Wal-Mart, but when Wal-Mart pulled out, I lost my investors and my bank support. I lost everything. I have lost 5 years of my life. I lost my home and properties; I lost my cars, investments, and savings. Everything was taken from me.
In response to Shah's lawsuit, a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Press-Enterprise newspaper that his company "did not misappropriate any information from the plaintiff in this case. Simply put, his (Shah's) allegations are baseless and misguided."
Dr. Shah now lives with his wife in a one-bedroom apartment. "I perform surgery part-time at three different dental offices," he says. "Professionals who have my skills and background usually are doing very well, but to this day, I am still struggling to get back on track." Shah does not have his own practice.
When asked if he is prepared to spend years battling Wal-Mart in court, Shah says: "If not years, then decades. I can find no compelling reason to stop fighting Wal-Mart. No one should have to experience what I went through. It was torture on earth. They stole my American Dream."