Saturday, February 23, 2013

Wheelchair lawsuits bedevil UWS merchants

Wave of similarly worded suits against locales that aren't deemed accessible to disabled customers spurs talk of banding together to fight lawyers demanding "legal fees" of up to $30,000 per mom-and-pop.

About once a week, a customer in a wheelchair will ring the bell at Gotham Food, a deli on Columbus Avenue. Owner Nicholas Parliaros will answer the door and pull out his temporary, foldable ramp. But his makeshift system for serving disabled customers makes him an easy mark for aggressive attorneys looking to sue businesses that are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mr. Parliaros said he was slammed with a lawsuit and is now facing $30,000 in legal fees. "I may put my business up for sale," he said. "I don't know, but I can't afford to pay that."

Upper West Side merchants
Mr. Parliaros is one of numerous Upper West Side merchants targeted by Ben-Zion Bradley Weitz, a Florida-based attorney raking in hefty fees by scouring New York City streets for non-ADA complaint storefronts. The plaintiffs in the cases make about $500 per suit. The real cost to merchants are the tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees the lawyers demand from noncompliant business owners.

Mr. Weitz works streets across the city. Since October 2009, he has sued almost 200 businesses in the state, the majority of which are in Manhattan, according to The New York Times.

But along Columbus Avenue, business owners are attempting to fight back. Indeed, merchants are collaborating to mount a unified defense against the attorneys they are accusing of extorting them.

"The best idea is that they band together and try to get before one judge," said Barbara Adler, executive director of the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District, which organized a meeting Tuesday morning for businesses to speak with attorneys who could help.

One judge could review the lawsuits and see that they are all copied from the same form, Ms. Adler said, suggesting that Mr. Weitz does nothing more than change the names and addresses on his court documents.

"These lawyers find someone to be a plaintiff and go down the streets looking for low-hanging fruit," said labor and employment attorney Peter Panken, who spoke Tuesday morning to the concerned business owners.

Installing a temporary ramp costs in the range of $120, Mr. Panken said. The problem is in the legal fees. "You will hear fees like $10,000 or $20,000," Mr. Panken said. "And what has the lawyer done? He has a standard form complaint and he has taken two paragraphs to describe the particular store involved. It's an hour of work."

In a survey of the neighborhood, Ms. Adler said her group found 75 blatant violations within a 15-block radius. "These businesses are sitting ducks and they will get sued," she said.

Many of the businesses along the commercial stretch of Columbus Avenue, between West 65th and West 87th streets, have already been saddled with lawsuits. To make matters more complicated, many proprietors said answering to ADA rules and the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission can be a catch-22.

Merchant Thomas Khateeb, who owns the neighborhood stalwart Thomas Drugs on Columbus Avenue and West 68th Street, said he installed a mobile ramp and a bell at his store in 2004 after receiving a complaint. But he still got sued. "It's a landmark building, and they're saying I can't have a permanent ramp," he said at the meeting. A large number of storefronts on the Upper West Side are historic, 19th century buildings.

Even advocates for the disabled were on hand Tuesday to encourage business owners to fight back against the lawsuits. The fees were "extortive behavior by this attorney," said James Weisman, general counsel for United Spinal Association. "They're completely undermining what we're doing as a disability group. If you don't band together, you're going to get picked off one by one."

By Annie Karni

Source: The Crain's New York Business


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