Marianne Schaefer in Legal/Financial on September 12, 2019
When President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990, it was touted as a breakthrough on a par with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Now, employers were required to make accommodations to people with disabilities, and public spaces had to be accessible to all. Three decades later, those noble intentions have turned into a less lofty reality: in a startling number of cases, the ADA is enriching dubious lawyers at the expense of co-op and condo boards.
“There is a whole bunch of lawyers who have ADA claims here in the city, especially with the older buildings without ADA access,” says attorney Emil Samman, a partner at Romer Debbas. “I myself have several such cases here on my desk. These lawyers have one handicapped client, and they go with this person from building to building with commercial spaces. If there is a problem getting this person in, they will file an ADA claim with the intention of settling for monetary relief.”
As reported by the New York Times, the plaintiff typically collects about $500 per lawsuit, while the lawyers average $16,000 in legal fees. Co-ops and condos in older buildings are especially vulnerable because, as these lawyers know, they’re less likely to have access for people with disabilities. Here’s a case in point.
“We’re a co-op in Soho, and we have a commercial space on the ground floor, a photo gallery,” says board member and attorney Herbert Henryson II. “Out of the blue we received a complaint from a lawyer whose name is well known here in the community. That attorney allegedly makes a living by filing these kinds of complaints.”
The complaint addressed access to the gallery space. There is one small step to get into the space – but no ramp. In addition, the complaints addressed the gallery space itself, including the bathroom facilities and the basement, where the gallery has some showroom space.
The parties named in the complaint were the co-op, the gallery, and the shareholder who owned the gallery space. All three were responsible for access to the gallery, while the gallery was responsible for the interior space. The co-op engaged an attorney and notified its insurance carrier. The insurer agreed that it was a legitimate claim by the co-op, and the policy covered legal fees. To avoid additional legal fees, the insurance carrier settled the case quickly. Though the case carried a strong whiff of a scam, the co-op was in violation of ADA.
“The monetary damages on the claim were minor, about $1,000 and we had to buy a temporary ramp for $500,” Henryson says. He speculates that the legal fees were tens of thousands of dollars, adding, “If that lawyer makes 20 of these claims in a month, he gets nearly half a million dollars.”
The Soho co-op got off easy because the insurance company took over, but Henryson suspects that the co-op’s insurance premium will go up. “I have to say we were well represented as a co-op,” he says, “but when we renew our policy, we anticipate that our claim history will become a factor in our premium. And if the premium goes up, well, welcome to the real world.”
Co-op and condo lawyers are increasingly confronted with claims from these serial plaintiffs. Kiran Vuppala, for instance, is now the plaintiff in about 100 different cases. “I myself had two claims by this plaintiff,” says Samman. Another serial plaintiff, Zoltan Hirsch, and his lawyer, Ben-Zion Bradley Weitz, were involved in about 185 lawsuits.
Attorneys advise co-op and condo boards with commercial space to make sure they are in compliance with the ADA. Even if judges realize the lawsuits are a scam, they’re required to make sure public spaces comply with the ADA. “Obviously this is extortion,” says Henryson. “But the problem is that it’s the law.”
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