Disability lawyers chewing at the Big Apple’s core

17 April 2012 by

A fascinating perspective on how a city’s architecture may be altered and shaped by aggressive rights litigation has been provided by today’s New York Times, which leads with a story entitled “Lawyers find obstacles to the disabled, then find plaintiffs“.

We are familiar in this country with the decades-old complaint that various unfortunate trends such as ambulance chasing and the litigation culture have filtered over the Atlantic, infecting English public life with defensive practices and an obsession with health and safety.  Whether the blame can be laid solely at the door US culture is moot, but certainly lessons can be drawn from the unintended consequences of high-minded rights legislation as they play out across the pond, particularly where similar laws in this country – largely consolidated in the Equality Act 2010 – have yet to make their impact.

The NYT article considers the potential effect on civic relations as certain lawyers avail themselves of “New York City’s age and architectural quirkiness” as the foundation for a flood of lawsuits citing violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It may come as some surprise to readers in this country that most of these suits – taken against owners of delis, bagel shops and assorted small undertakings usually occupying old corner shops in the country’s crowded capital – are not led by offended disabled plaintiffs. They start instead with law firms identifying the unfortunate businesses first, then recruiting plaintiffs from advocacy and campaigning groups to pursue the case. On some occasions the same plaintiff is used several times. One wheelchair user sued nineteen businesses in sixteen months; another disabled man, veteran of 143 suits, filed as many as nine claims in a single day. As the author explains,

The plaintiffs typically collect $500 for each suit, and each plaintiff can be used several times over. The lawyers, meanwhile, make several thousands of dollars, because the civil rights law entitles them to legal fees from the noncompliant businesses.

The American disabilities legislation prohibits discrimination by private entities that are open to the public.  It is not difficult to latch on to a range of features in these small businesses that technically breach the terms of the legislation; cramped shops will inevitably have high shelves that cannot be reached from a wheelchair, and aisles that are too narrow; ramps often absent and even if they are installed they may be too steep or have no handrails. To make things worse, fees for lawyers are available from the public coffers, irrespective of the remedy available to the plaintiff . The Disabilities Act awards injunctive relief only, but disabled plaintiffs are entitled to damages if they also sue under city or state human rights law.

The problem with this flood of claims is that they tend to be settled at breakneck speed by store owners, cowed by the prospect of ruinous court proceedings. The courts therefore rarely have the opportunity to rationalise and perhaps modify the effect of the laws concerned.  In the US, critics (including federal judges) have suggested that lawyers specialising in this area of rights litigation are “interested in generating legal fees; they say the lawyers typically do not give the businesses a chance to remedy the problem before filing suit”. Defence attorney for some of the businesses quoted in the article is Queens lawyer Ming Hai. He does not mince his words:

All they want is money; they get the money, and they move on to the next target …It has become a profession to go out and look for a little problem here and there.

It may be that these “little problems” should be corrected by something other than the sledgehammer of federal legislation.The truth of the matter is that the “greedy lawyer” problem will not go away whilst the laws are there to be exploited. Much the same has been said of the effect of our rights legislation on local authorities; that, in effect, its impact on society is determined by febrile litigation rather than the cool authority of the legal process itself, with its adversarial checks and balances.

Sign up to free human rights updates by email, Facebook, Twitter or RSS

Related posts:


  1. Are Human Rights lawyers concerned with protecting the Human Rights of disabled people or are they concerned with eroding them? If the former, then perhaps the Human Rights blog will cover at least two things: the UK State persecution of disabled people, forcing many to kill themselves:


    And the right of disabled people to work:


    I realise that those two things ask for more than a ‘right to die,’ so if you are a supporter of disabled people, then please show your hand.


  2. John Poirier says:

    As an American who has been paraplegic for 36 years I have been so frustrated by the ADA, which does not have a central authority for resolving non-compliance issues. There is no one federal agency one can call to report a business that is still not compliant with access codes that have been written 20 years ago.

    This New York Times article was poorly written, implying that the disabled are just trying to make money from businesses they don’t even patronize. Yet disabled customers often cannot find out who is responsible for enforcing accessibility standards. Your last paragraph of the “sledgehammer of federal legislation” versus “greedy lawyer problem” makes no sense, if legislation has no enforcement mechanisms. How else to get non-compliant businesses to comply if not to hire an attorney if agencies like building inspectors ignore
    ADA codes?

    Furthermore, most attorneys will not take ADA cases because of the limited compensation, leaving “ambulance chasers” to try to find multiple offenders to sue. These lawyers often care little about the disabled, and the disabled community must face the backlash while trying to maintain goodwill by discussing the access issues with the small business owners, and attempting to resolve them without suing.

  3. Christopher Hitchens says:

    ……I note that the amended “AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT 1990″Sec. 12113. Defenses. [Section 103], (d)(1) and (2) still depressingly awards religious bodies a special defence (or defense for those of us fortunate enough to have become Americans), and allows them to give preference in employment on the basis of their own religious tenets –

    What then of some of the more obscure (e.g.Indian and South American) religious brands, who find it acceptable to leave disabled children in the desert to starve to death , and/or entrust to the care of insanitary Catholic nuns with no medicines to die of curable conditions?
    The legislation allows all religious organisations to insist that their employees adhere to the tenets of their faith – sooooo….if they employ someone with an infection, can they insist they refuse antibiotics and simply die????

  4. Chris says:

    PS please dont’ fall for “compensation culture” nonsense PI claimes have fallen since the introduction of Access to Justice

  5. Chris says:

    As a disabled person I have found there is a great need to enforce this legislation because unless threatened by litigation many firms will not ensure disabled acccess Its my experience that even those who claim disabled access (particularly hotels) often do not. One very costly hotel advised when asked that their disabled room was on the 1st floor!!

  6. MA says:

    ..we have introduced ‘mediation protocols’ – perhaps ‘touting for clients’ in this way should be more firmly within the SRA’s remit ?

  7. Society is very slow to be inclusive of disabled people – especially in public transport and the workplace. More ‘smart’ law is the only hope for progress.

  8. adamlotunwda says:

    We so need Solicitors to do this in the UK, I would jump at the chance and get some compo to boot as well!…

Comments are closed.

Welcome to the UKHRB

This blog is run by 1 Crown Office Row barristers' chambers. Subscribe for free updates here. The blog's editorial team is:
Commissioning Editor: Jonathan Metzer
Editorial Team: Rosalind English
Angus McCullough QC David Hart QC
Martin Downs
Jim Duffy

Free email updates

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog for free and receive weekly notifications of new posts by email.




Aarhus Abortion Abu Qatada Abuse Access to justice adoption AI air pollution air travel ALBA Allergy Al Qaeda Amnesty International animal rights Animals Anne Sacoolas anonymity Article 1 Protocol 1 Article 2 article 3 Article 4 article 5 Article 6 Article 8 Article 9 article 10 Article 11 article 13 Article 14 article 263 TFEU Artificial Intelligence Asbestos Assange assisted suicide asylum asylum seekers Australia autism badgers benefits Bill of Rights biotechnology blogging Bloody Sunday brexit Bribery British Waterways Board care homes Catholic Church Catholicism Chagos Islanders Charter of Fundamental Rights child protection Children children's rights China christianity citizenship civil liberties campaigners civil partnerships climate change clinical negligence closed material procedure Coercion Commission on a Bill of Rights common law communications competition confidentiality consent conservation constitution contact order contact tracing contempt of court Control orders Copyright coronavirus coronavirus act 2020 costs costs budgets Court of Protection covid crime criminal law Cybersecurity Damages data protection death penalty defamation DEFRA deportation deprivation of liberty derogations Detention Dignitas diplomacy diplomatic relations disability disclosure Discrimination disease divorce DNA domestic violence duty of care ECHR ECtHR Education election Employment Environment Equality Act Equality Act 2010 Ethiopia EU EU Charter of Fundamental Rights EU costs EU law European Convention on Human Rights European Court of Human Rights European Court of Justice evidence extradition extraordinary rendition Facebook Facial Recognition Family Fatal Accidents Fertility FGM Finance foreign criminals foreign office foreign policy France freedom of assembly Freedom of Expression freedom of information freedom of speech Gay marriage gay rights Gaza Gender genetics Germany Google Grenfell Gun Control Harry Dunn Health HIV home office Housing HRLA human rights Human Rights Act human rights news Human Rights Watch Huntington's Disease immigration India Indonesia injunction Inquests insurance international law internet inuit Iran Iraq Ireland islam Israel Italy IVF ivory ban Japan joint enterprise judaism judicial review Judicial Review reform Julian Assange jury trial JUSTICE Justice and Security Bill Law Pod UK legal aid legal aid cuts Leveson Inquiry lgbtq liability Libel Liberty Libya lisbon treaty Lithuania local authorities marriage Media and Censorship mental capacity Mental Capacity Act Mental Health military Ministry of Justice modern slavery morocco murder music Muslim nationality national security naturism neuroscience NHS Northern Ireland nuclear challenges nuisance Obituary ouster clauses parental rights parliamentary expenses scandal patents Pensions Personal Injury physician assisted death Piracy Plagiarism planning planning system Poland Police Politics Pope press prison Prisoners prisoner votes Prisons privacy procurement Professional Discipline Property proportionality prosecutions prostituton Protection of Freedoms Bill Protest Public/Private public access public authorities public inquiries quarantine Radicalisation rehabilitation Reith Lectures Religion RightsInfo right to die right to family life Right to Privacy right to swim riots Roma Romania round-up Round Up Royals Russia saudi arabia Scotland secrecy secret justice Secret trials sexual offence shamima begum Sikhism Smoking social media social workers South Africa Spain special advocates Sports Standing starvation statelessness stem cells stop and search Strasbourg super injunctions Supreme Court Supreme Court of Canada surrogacy surveillance sweatshops Syria Tax technology Terrorism The Round Up tort Torture travel treason treaty accession trial by jury TTIP Turkey Twitter UK Ukraine universal credit universal jurisdiction unlawful detention USA US Supreme Court vicarious liability Wales War Crimes Wars Weekly Round-up Welfare Western Sahara Whistleblowing Wikileaks wildlife wind farms WomenInLaw Worboys wrongful birth YearInReview Zimbabwe


This blog is maintained for information purposes only. It is not intended to be a source of legal advice and must not be relied upon as such. Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their individual authors, not of chambers as a whole.

Our privacy policy can be found on our ‘subscribe’ page or by clicking here.

%d bloggers like this: