Looking out for the little guy: City to help mom-and-pops meet accessibility codes after series of suits

Looking out for the little guy: City to help mom-and-pops meet accessibility codes after series of suits
Photo by Jason Speakman

City officials launched a new program to protect small-business owners from lawsuits after an attorney representing a disabled man sued more than a dozen Park Slope mom-and-pop shops for violating a federal accessibility law, the nabe’s councilman announced on Oct. 27.

Proprietors can now invite experts from the Department of Small Business Services to their shops, where they will check for compliance issues related to the Americans with Disabilities Act — which requires businesses meet certain standards in order to serve the disabled — and recommend fixes that may save owners thousands in legal fees and other penalties, according to a mayor’s office rep. The free program will help entrepreneurs address violations before they’re flagged in the form of litigation, said a lawyer familiar with the issue.

“I think a service like that, almost a beat ‘em to the punch type of service, is great,” said Vincent Wong, who represented Fifth-Avenue restaurant Pink Lotus Gourmet after it was sued under the disabilities act.

Councilman Brad Lander’s (D–Park Slope) announcement followed lawsuits filed by Queens resident Pedro Fontanes, who sued Pink Lotus Gourmet and at least 12 other Fifth-Avenue businesses since 2016, including Burger Bistro, Calexico, Culture American Yogurt Company, Hiroto Japanese Restaurant, Le Pain Quotidien, Luke’s Lobster, Nahm Thai Kitchen, Pick Quick Foods, Pizza Town, SkyIce, Uncle Barry’s, and Dizzy’s diner, which closed in August.

Suits like Fontanes’ often blindside small-business owners, according to Wong, who said the pressure of keeping their doors open can distract them from focusing on compliance issues.

“Most small businesses aren’t worrying too much about the ADA,” he said. “They’re worrying about having enough customers, and if their lease is worth putting their life savings into.”

Mom-and-pop proprietors can fight the lawsuits in front of a judge, but the cost in legal fees to do so can be ruinous, and most would rather settle out of court — even if the plaintiff’s lawyer collects most of the cash, according to another attorney familiar with the issue.

“Why would you pay me $25,000 when this guy is saying pay me $10,000 and it all goes away,” said Dennis Kearney, who represented Uncle Barry’s after it was sued. “These little guys get crushed on the fees, so it’s easier to throw cash at the plaintiffs.”

Slope shopkeepers and their advocates at the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District contacted Lander for help in response to Fontanes’ legal blitz, and the pol then sat down with officials from the city’s small-business agency and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities to hash out a solution, according to a rep for the councilman.

Lander announced the new program less than two weeks after Fontanes died, according to his lawyer, who perversely claimed small-business owners targeted by his client should rejoice now that he can no longer sue them.

“Tell the defendants in this case that he passed away and can no longer bring law suits,” said Ismail Sekendiz. “They should celebrate his death.”

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.