Updated: February 20, 2020 11:35 PM
Created: February 20, 2020 06:43 PM
NEW YORK (WHEC) — A warning for any retailer that sells a gift card: The lawsuits are coming.
For more than a year News10NBC tracked the trend of a handful of lawyers suing property owners, businesses and schools for violating the terms of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law that has existed since the early 1990s.
And now, News10NBC found out retailers and their gift cards are at the core of hundreds of new lawsuits. And they are the first in this country.
"The only gift card on the market..."
Tuesday morning I walked into the Starbucks on Monroe Avenue in Rochester to buy a gift card, a very specific kind of gift card.
"Can I get a gift card with Braille on it?," I asked. "Oh, here it is right here."
I found one among the options of gift cards at the register.
The gift card looks like a regular Starbucks gift card but when you look closely you see the Braille on it, those series of bumps that allowed someone who is visually impaired to read it. In the world of gift cards this is rare.
I searched the federal court database for New York.
Since late October, two lawyers representing 16 people sued 231 businesses for selling gift cards without Braille. The companies run some of the biggest, most popular restaurants and stores in the country including Amazon which, when I contacted them replied, "we cannot comment on ongoing litigation."
88 of the companies sued have at least one location in Rochester.
In one of the lawsuits, it says "There is only one gift card on the market that contains Braille and it is issued by Starbucks."
Tracking the lawyers
Tuesday, I called and emailed the two lawyers in New York City who are responsible for most of the lawsuits.
"Hi, is this Brad?" I asked.
I reached attorney Bradly Marks. He sued 93 times in three months. He thanked me for the call but said his firm's policy is not to comment.
Then I reached attorney Jeffrey Gottlieb, also in New York City. Gottlieb sued 138 times since October. He told me he had no comment.
"You talked to me the last time we did a story on this," I reminded him.
"Yes but for different reasons I have no comment," he said.
"Can you explain what those different reasons are?" I asked.
"No, I have no comment on it." he said.
Why are we investigating?
Remember that line about Starbucks?
It's in every single lawsuit.
The language in rest of the lawsuits is virtually identical. The only change is the name of the retailer as the defendant.
The National Federation for the Blind calls it "serial litigation" that "does not meaningfully promote accessibility."
"Lawyers find a problem and then they find plaintiffs to file suits," said Tom Stebbins of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, a state lobby for business and healthcare agencies.
I spoke to Stebbins when I investigated the similar wave of lawsuits over the parking lots of malls and restaurants and the websites of wineries, art galleries and schools.
They all alleged specific, technical violations of Title III of the ADA and that's what the gift card lawsuits do.
Chief Investigative Reporter Berkeley Brean: "Why do you think they decided to pick gift cards this time?"
Tom Stebbins, Lawsuit Reform Alliance of NY: "Well I think they just, again, found this violation and said gosh, someone should sue over that."
"The world is set up for sighted individuals"
"The world is set up for sighted individuals," said Rene Latorre.
Latorre is the director of advocacy for Goodwill of the Finger Lakes.
She won't comment on the lawsuits but she advocates for people who are visually impaired, like herself and she showed me a Goodwill card with a Braille sticker on it.
"So if you had a bunch of cards in your wallet and didn't have any print on them and there was nothing on them and you had six of them, would they mean anything to you?" Latorre asked. "Probably not.
The lawsuits ask the court to put a "permanent injunction" on the companies selling gift cards and then ask the court to force them to offer cards with braille.
But let's look at who's suing again. One lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of New York, which encompasses Long Island and some New York City boroughs.
His lawyer is Jeffrey Gottlieb.
Camacho sued 14 companies in two months over gift cards. Last year he sued 54 colleges and universities, including RIT and Nazareth, because he said their websites violated the ADA.
Multiple lawfirms told me the U.S. Department of Justice has never taken a position on gift cards and the ADA. The DOJ wouldn't comment.
In one ADA case we investigated two years ago, the settlement was $11,500. The New York Times reported the plaintiffs, the people with their name on the lawsuit, get about $500.
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