The practice has set off a debate about whether the lawsuits are a laudable effort, because they force businesses to make physical improvements to comply with the disabilities act, or simply a form of ambulance-chasing, with no one actually having been injured.
The suits may claim a host of problems: at a deli grocery in West Harlem, an overly steep ramp without guardrails, high shelves and a narrowing pathway near the refrigerators; at a yogurt shop in the theater district, no ramp, no bathroom doorknob that can be opened with a closed fist and exposed hot water drains under the bathroom sink; at a flower shop on the Upper East Side, no ramp and shelves that are too high.
All of those suits were filed by Ben-Zion Bradley Weitz, a lawyer based in Florida, who has a regular group of people with disabilities from whom he selects plaintiffs. One of them, Todd Kreisler, a man in a wheelchair who lives on the East Side of Manhattan, sued 19 businesses over 16 months — a Chinese restaurant, a liquor store and a sandwich shop among them.
The results of the suits were almost immediate: workers grabbed their hammers, installing new ramps, lowering counters and shelves and making businesses more accessible to people with disabilities. And as a product of the litigation, the businesses had to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to Mr. Weitz and his associates.
Mr. Weitz is leading the charge into New York’s courtrooms. Since October 2009, he has sued almost 200 businesses in the state, mostly in Federal District Court in Manhattan. He has eight years of experience filing these suits in Florida, where his practice does not seem to be lagging. Two weeks ago, he brought claims against four Tampa businesses — a strip mall, a convenience store, a bar and a print shop.
Another lawyer with a thriving practice, Martin J. Coleman of Long Island, has filed almost 130 cases in the Eastern District of New York. Mr. Coleman said he was aware the lawsuits had drawn criticism.
“Folks go out there and say, ‘I’m mad at the plaintiffs,’ and ‘I see the same names,’ and ‘Let’s go bash the plaintiffs’ attorneys,’ “ Mr. Coleman said. “I don’t mind that, but the law has been there, don’t kid yourself.”
“As a private attorney, every lawsuit that I file is to make money, because that’s how I make a living,” he added. “And in that regard, I’m no different than any other private attorney.”
Few, if any, cases have gone to trial, according to a review of electronic court records; the defendants usually agree to settle, often in less than six months, closing the cases at a breakneck pace for federal court.