Lawsuits Forcing New York City Businesses to Comply with Americans with Disabilities Act

Attorneys for the disabled in New York City are on a crusade of sorts to ensure that businesses comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to a report in The New York Times, while many do laud the lawyers involved for increasing accessibility for the disabled, others have decried their efforts.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which was enacted in 1990, bars discrimination against the disabled by private entities that are open to the public. Under the law, plaintiffs who bring lawsuits can only sue for injunctive relief, that is, a court order mandating the business named as a defendant fix the condition that led to the suit. However, the law also allows courts to order that defendants pay fees for attorneys.

Wile the disabled plaintiffs cannot collect damages under the disabilities act, they are entitled to receive awards as long as they also sue under New City or state human rights law, the Times said.

According to the Times, a number of lawyers have recently taken up the fight for the disabled in New York City, and have filed and settled numerous lawsuits against businesses not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, the lawsuits they’ve filed have not been sparked by complaints from disabled people. Instead, the attorneys first identify a business not in compliance with the law, then find a plaintiff for their lawsuit. In many of these suits, the attorneys use the same plaintiff over and over again. For example, according to the Times, one wheelchair-bound man who lives on the East Side of Manhattan sued 19 businesses over 16 months.

The lawsuits do have the desired effect. In most cases, defendants usually agree to settle, often in less than six months. As a result, the establishments named in the claims are soon installing new ramps, lowering counters and shelves and making other improvements that will allow accessibility to people with disabilities, the Times said. In addition to making the improvements, the defendants usually have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Lawmakers and federal judges have questioned the practice, contending that the lawyers are only interested in generating legal fees, the Times said. But the lawyers’ defenders assert their suits are finally forcing New York City businesses to meet standards for accessibility that are more than 20 years old.

“It would be really be impossible for people to find a lawyer if there was no way for lawyers to get paid,” Ruth Colker, a law professor at The Ohio State University, who specializes in disability law, told the Times. She characterized the tactics as an effective way to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Carr Massi, who uses a wheelchair and has sued five businesses in Manhattan for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, told the Times she has no problem with the fact that her attorney collected fees as a result of her lawsuits.

“He is fighting for something he believes in, and if he gets a few bucks, why not?” she said. “I feel like whatever he is doing I am benefiting from it and other wheelchair users are benefiting from it.”

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