A surprisingly ambivalent story in today's New York Times describes a legal specialty spawned by the Americans With Disabilities Act: Lawyers look for building features that fall short of the ADA's requirements for places of "public accommodation" such as stores and restaurants, "aggressively recruit plaintiffs from advocacy groups for people with disabilities," and sue the businesses on their behalf, demanding legal fees as well as structural modifications. The business owners settle, agreeing to pay thousands of dollars in fees on top of whatever it costs to fix faulty features such as excessively steep ramps, excessively narrow aisles, and excessively high shelves. The lawyers pocket something like $6,000 per case (according to a defense attorney quoted by the Times), while the plaintiffs, who may never actually patronize the newly compliant businesses, "typically collect $500 for each suit."
The same plaintiff "can be used several times over"; the Times cites Todd Kreisler, a Manhattanite in a wheelchair who "sued 19 businesses over 16 months." In each case he was represented by Ben-Zion Bradley Weitz, who honed his ADA skills in Florida before joining "a small cadre of lawyers" who are "using New York City's age and architectural quirkiness as the foundation for a flood of lawsuits." The Times estimates that Weitz has raked in "more than $600,000 for the 106 cases he has closed in New York," which is nothing to sneeze at, although it pales beside what big-time litigators can earn from a single class action. The Times nevertheless seems perturbed by these entrepreneurial enforcers. Under the headline "Disabilities Act Prompts Flood of Suits Some Cite as Unfair," it reports that "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."
Can't they be both? If you accept the ADA's premise, which is that the government should force business owners to bear the cost of making the world more navigable for disabled people, you should be grateful to lawyers like Weitz for helping enforce that rule. More than two decades after the law was passed, Weitz is rooting out violators and making them comply, all at no cost to taxpayers. Critics complain that he and his colleagues sue right away, instead of notifying noncompliant businesses and giving them a chance to address their shortcomings. "Former Representative Mark Foley of Florida regularly introduced legislation to amend the Americans With Disabilities Act to require that business owners receive 90 days notice before being sued," the Times notes, and "similar legislation is pending now." That sort of reform might seem only fair, but it would undermine lawyers' incentive to enforce the law. If you know that your efforts will be rewarded with nothing more than guard rails, lower shelves, or new door handles, why bother? "As a private attorney," one of Weitz's competitors tells the Times, "every lawsuit that I file is to make money, because that's how I make a living. And in that regard, I'm no different than any other private attorney."
More on the ADA here.