April 17, 2012 3:34PM

New York Times Covers ADA Shakedown Lawsuits

As the New York Times reports today, mass filing of accessibility lawsuits against Main Street businesses, long a cottage industry for Florida and California lawyers, has now reached Gotham in a big way:

A small cadre of lawyers, some from out of state, are using New York City’s age and architectural quirkiness as the foundation for a flood of lawsuits citing violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The lawyers are generally not acting on existing complaints from people with disabilities. Instead, they identify local businesses, like bagel shops and delis, that are not in compliance with the law, and then aggressively recruit plaintiffs from advocacy groups for people with disabilities.

The cases then settle for a few thousand dollars in what are described as legal fees, as well as a payment (token or otherwise) to the named client, and a promise to relocate or replace the shelf or doorknob or paper towel dispenser whose ADA‐​noncompliant status was complained of in the suit.

I’ve been covering these shakedown operations for years, and some other New York press outlets have already gotten to the same case histories in livelier fashion, as with the New York Post, which last June reported on the same attorney (Bradley Weitz) and client (Zoltan Hirsch) who figure prominently in today’s Times report. (Best detail from the Post: “[Hirsch] targeted a pedicure station at the Red & White Spa in SoHo—even though he has no feet.”) Still, the Times adds some helpful details, such as that the number of similar suits nationwide has more than doubled in five years (to 3,000, “including more than 300 in New York”) and that New York’s pro‐​plaintiff city and state Human Rights Laws encourage things by allowing damages for complainants, thus raising the suits’ extraction value beyond the level of attorneys’ fees. (California has the worst ADA shakedown racket—to the point where liberal Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein recently threatened to intervene unless Sacramento does something to clean it up—because of the distinctively high damages available under its Unruh Act).

Inevitably, the Times also quotes advocates including a law professor, in this case Ruth Colker of Ohio State, defending the use of the law in this fashion. That Colker and other top ADA specialists in legal academia actually defend the law’s use as a shakedown mechanism—after all, doesn’t that deter violations?—is about as severe a judgment on the ideological state of legal academia as anything in Schools for Misrule.