Monday, June 06, 2011
He's hell on wheels.
Zoltan Hirsch, a double amputee in a wheelchair, says he's trying to make New York City more handicapped accessible one lawsuit at a time. But some wonder whether Hirsch -- who has filed 87 federal claims in the last year seeking damages and legal fees -- is crusader or con man.
The Brooklyn resident, who lost his legs after a car accident seven years ago, files lawsuits at the rate of about one a day, hitting businesses ranging from a Brooklyn Dunkin' Donuts to Louis Vuitton in SoHo to Midtown's Lace strip club. He rolls down the street, block by block, looking for places that can't let him inside.
SUING MACHINE: Zoltan Hirsch files lawsuits at a rate of one a day against businesses that he says aren't handicapped accessible.
The suits claim Hirsch suffered "an injury" from being denied access. But it is unlikely the 31-year-old Hasidic Jew would patronize some of the establishments he cites -- including the non-kosher City Crab restaurant.
He targeted a pedicure station at the Red & White Spa in SoHo -- even though he has no feet.
Hirsch typically maintains he cannot get into a business, but his lawsuits are filled with precise descriptions of alleged violations inside, including bars that are inches too high, condiments that are out of reach, and bathroom towels inaccessible to a wheelchair user.
He sued Sanctuary Tea in SoHo last month -- one of 36 suits he filed in May alone -- claiming he couldn't get in the door.
Owner Dawn Cameron said the thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight the case, or even settle it, could devastate her restaurant. There are two steps to reach the restaurant, and she said wheelchair users are helped inside.
"It's a shame that people are able to do this," she said. "It's really just extortion."
The claims ask for $500 in damages for Hirsch, plus legal fees to his lawyer, Bradley Weitz of Florida, who has filed dozens and dozens of similar suits in that state. Those fees can reach $15,000 per case, swelling with each request for documents, payment to experts or travel reimbursements for Weitz.
Weitz seems to be exploiting the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allows the payment of attorney fees, according to one lawyer who defended a business sued by Hirsch.
If even one violation of the ADA is upheld, Weitz can recover attorney fees, explained another lawyer. "It's ingenious," he said, adding that defendants often settle quickly.
If Hirsch is successful in all his complaints, the law firm would make upward of $1.3 million -- and that's just for the cases so far.
In California there has been a rash of suits by disabled residents alleging ADA violations. One paraplegic man who filed hundreds of suits was named a "hit-and-run plaintiff" and barred from making claims without court permission.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Southern California Republican, has proposed legislation that would provide notices to businesses about possible ADA violations before a lawsuit is launched.
"These lawsuits are often intended for personal profit, not for the reason of ensuring access to places of public accommodation," Hunter said.
Hirsch and his lawyer say they are not out for a buck but are championing the rights of the disabled. They claim success in forcing businesses to add wheelchair ramps or make other changes.
But Hirsch targets few businesses near his Borough Park home, instead siccing his legal beagle on businesses in swanky neighborhoods.
Hirsch, who claims he likes to shop in SoHo, said that as soon as he spots a potential violator, he snaps a photo and sends it to Weitz, who dispatches an investigator.
He says he gets only $500 if a case is settled and no other compensation from Weitz. Several of the suits have been settled under confidential agreements, but most are still ongoing.
As for the non-kosher restaurants, Hirsch, who lives with his girlfriend and their daughter, said he'd like to be able to enjoy a soda or even a scotch. And he wants to be able to visit a strip club if he chooses.
"It's my prerogative," he said.
Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, said lawsuits contending ADA violations usually address real problems.
"Whether someone then is trying to use that process just to enrich themselves -- we're not happy with that," he said.
"As for the non-kosher restaurants, Hirsch, who lives with his girlfriend and their daughter, said he'd like to be able to enjoy a soda or even a scotch. And he wants to be able to visit a strip club if he chooses."
This is a Chassid??
This is a Chassid??
This man is a thief in long payos. Instead of using a gun to rob these stores he's using the legal system. He still a thief!Post a Comment
Olam Habo he won't see!
Olam Habo he won't see!