I got an anxious call from Gretel Ramirez, the very nice lady who, with her brother, operates the friendly Sandwich Shoppe on Greenwich Avenue, saying that she had been subjected to what seemed to be some kind of fraud and would I come by and talk to her. She showed me a sheaf of very legal-looking pages suing her because she was failing to provide a ramp for handicapped access to the restaurant. (Her lawyer charged her $3,000 to look at the papers and was ready to charge her another $2,000 to take action; or she could settle with the attorney who was acting on behalf of a handicapped person who was suing her for “lack of access.”)
Ms. Rameriz went round to talk to her neighborhood restaurateurs and discovered that they had all been served with the very same legal demands with the same offer to “settle” for cash “plus legal fees.”
I became genuinely anxious when I discovered that the police did not want to talk about it, and I realized that this crooked lawyer was “serving” one shop after another because what he was doing is perfectly legal!
What you will read is about a lawyer whose son operates a restaurant in the West Village and was served by the same crooked lawyer.
The most delicious part of this is when our lawyer author confronted the crooked lawyer on the phone. (If we could only run an unexpurgated account!)—George Capsis
By Max Leifer
I am an attorney who specializes in disability cases as well as civil practice. I am also a part owner of a couple of food and beverage establishments.
I recently read that the Department of Justice arrested an attorney, Stuart Finkelstein, who has, according to articles in the newspaper and law journals, been bringing numerous lawsuits under the Americans With Disabilities Act, on behalf of people who never gave him consent to bring these actions.
I have had personal experiences with Mr. Finkelstein. On or about April 26, 2018, my restaurant, Da Marcella, located on West Houston Street, was sued by Mr. Finkelstein, and his client Jose Figueroa. Mr. Finkelstein also included my partner and me in the lawsuits. Mr. Finkelstein contacted me by phone and inquired when I would put in a response to the lawsuit. Since we were not served, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. And since the restaurant is a corporate ownership, I asked him why he was serving my partner and me individually. His response was, “ I want to make sure I get paid.” After my choice response, we hired an attorney, since we were being sued individually, to respond to his lawsuit.
Mr. Finkelstein was demanding a fee for Mr. Figueroa of $1,000.00, and $15,000.00 in legal fees if the case settled early. In addition, the changes to our restaurant would eliminate all of the front outdoor seating, and additional seating near the entrance. It should be noted that Da Marcella was a small rustic Italian restaurant with limited seating. The required changes would eliminate a significant part of our income. At this point, we felt that something was not legitimate, since Mr. Finkelstein was more interested in receiving payment than reaching an accord as to the premises.
My son, Seth Leifer, also felt that further investigation was warranted. His efforts disclosed that Mr. Finkelstein was disbarred on or about February 13, 2007, by New York State. Mr. Finkelstein then began working for an attorney in Florida. The Florida complaint, by the Bar Association involving the attorney that employed Mr. Finkelstein on March 20, 2018, stated that Mr. Finkelstein had approached possible plaintiffs in an ADA case, and started lawsuits and settlements without their approval. Notwithstanding this complaint, Mr. Finkelstein applied to the New York Appellate Division for reinstatement, and was reinstated as an attorney in New York.
Upon reinstatement, he started ADA cases in New York. After we discovered all of these various documents, we contacted the New York Post, who then started their investigation. Their investigations disclosed that Mr. Figueroa was named as a plaintiff in over 25 cases, of which he was allegedly unaware. When we made the Court aware of these facts, the case was discontinued, but the damage was done. We spent unnecessary legal fees, architectural reviews, and ultimately we closed the restaurant, since this was one of the reasons we would be limited in generating income. Due to this closure, five employees lost their jobs. I would suggest reviewing the New York Post articles.
After this happened, I became more involved in ADA litigation. This act created a loophole for unscrupulous attorneys. The first notice would be a lawsuit that would require a response and create an automatic windfall for attorneys and claimants. I contacted Senator Schumer, and advised him of the situations, and suggested that there be a change in the act to require a 90-day notice, so as to allow an opportunity for the establishment to determine how to comply. After the 90-day notice, a lawsuit could then be brought with capping of legal fees at the Court’s discretion. In fact, the honorable Judge Johnson, a Brooklyn Federal Court Judge, had found these cases “disingenuous at best” (case available for review).
These attorneys use a boilerplate complaint, and issue numerous lawsuits throughout the United States. These boilerplate complaints clearly show how little legal service generates substantial gains. I want to be clear; I support the ADA to help disabled individuals. My experience is that legitimate disabled individuals would never be involved with these scams.
Also, there are numerous not-for-profit groups that have assisted disabled individuals without these types of lawsuits. I should also note that I sent the research of Mr. Finkelstein’s lawsuits, and other, lawsuits like these, to Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, who have disclosed an excellent digest form this improper conduct. I also mailed this information to the Second Department Disciplinary Committee. I have not received a response from Senator Schumer nor the Disciplinary Committee.
By the recent indictment of Mr. Finkelstein, I am hoping that this puts a chilling effect on the actions of these attorneys. This requires an actual change in the law by Congress and the Department of Justice, as well as the judges who recognize the abuses as stated by Justice Johnson. A statement by Tom Stebbins, LRANY’S executive director, “ Many of these cases are not about insuring access for the disabled but extorting settlements.” Mr. Stebbins is also addressing the new ADA cases involving the visually impaired, which is becoming a possible loophole in the ADA act.
If anyone has any questions, or would like to review the materials related to the article, feel free to contact me. Max D. Leifer, 135 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10001 • (212) 334-9699