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News10NBC investigates: ADA lawsuits top 2,338 in New York; target malls, colleges, wineries and art galleries

May 01, 2019 06:14 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) -- More and more lawsuits are getting filed against restaurants, malls, wineries and art galleries for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

News10NBC found one man responsible for more than a hundred of them.

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Our investigation started Tuesday. Now, News10NBC is finding out why the system allows all these lawsuits to happen. 

The bottom line is there is nothing illegal about the lawsuits, so there is nothing to stop them. But critics say this is a cottage industry designed to make money for lawyers, not fix problems. And one solution to this stalled. 

Tom Stebbins, Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York: "In 2014, it was just a small issue. Now, it's a massive issue."

Tom Stebbins is the director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York. He authored the report "Serial Plaintiffs: The Abuse of ADA Title III."

In 2017 in New York state, there were 1,023 ADA lawsuits. In 2018, the number more than doubled to 2,338.

That's an increase of 128 percent. 

News10NBC Chief Investigative Reporter Berkeley Brean: "Is there anything illegal or improper about doing this?"

Stebbins: "It's not improper or illegal, it's just unfortunate. Really we've discovered that the primary driver for these lawsuits is not actual access for the disabled. It's actually legal fees."

The most prolific plaintiff in Rochester is Christopher E. Brown from Queens, New York. We found at least 18 lawsuits filed by Brown in western New York. Federal court records show he is currently suing Eastview Mall, Elmridge Plaza in Greece and Southtown Plaza in Henrietta.

In a statement, his lawyer from Miami said, "These cases are about improving access for the disabled, not about money." 

But every complaint demands lawyers fees and a penalty. 

Stebbins: "And unfortunately, so many of the small businesses see it as economic to simply settle. They settle, they pay legal fees to make it go away."

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that said there needs to be "written notice" sent to the property owner and time to fix a problem before a lawsuit can be filed. 

It never got a vote in the U.S. Senate.

Scott mooney was the lawyer for Southtown Plaza when it was first sued just before Christmas. 

Scott Mooney, Partner, Boylan Code: "But that's been shut down."

Brean: "It didn't happen?"

Mooney: "Didn't happen."

Brean: "Why not?"

Mooney: "There is opposition from the disabled community which I think they're position is, why do we have to provide notice when no other protected class has to provide similar notice?"

Brean: "Sounds legit."

Mooney: "It is legitimate but there needs to be some sort of balance."

Another argument against the notice idea is that the ADA law is 30 years old and businesses have had plenty of time to fix problems. 

We're starting to see more lawsuits against colleges, wineries and art galleries saying their websites violate the ADA by discriminating against people who are deaf or blind. 

One New York City law firm has sued 15 wineries including Fox Run on Seneca Lake.

Dozens of art galleries are getting sued in New York. The online magazine Artnet says the cost to settle is $15,000. The cost to go to trial is closer to $100,000. 

How do the lawyers and plaintiffs find the websites? Listen to Tom Stebbin from The Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York. 

Tom Stebbins, Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York: "One of the things, ironically we've just seen, is a number of art galleries hit with these cases where they're saying the website is not accessible to the blind. And unfortunately a lot of lawyer are employing crawlers, so they have these software programs that they use to identify sites that are not compliant with the ADA."

Watch below for our previous investigations

News10NBC investigates an explosion of ADA lawsuits in New York

News10NBC investigates: Lawyer says ADA lawsuits 'just a money grab'

Credits

Berkeley Brean

Copyright 2019 - WHEC-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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