ADA Suits Target Village Businesses

The American Hotel, which has two low steps at its main entrance was one of the Sag Harbor businesses named in a slew of discrimination lawsuits filed by a Huntington woman. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

A Huntington woman has filed suit against at least 10 East End businesses, charging them with discriminating against her because they do not comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, the sweeping federal legislation adopted in 1990 that aims to eliminate barriers in public places to the disabled.

The suits have all been filed in federal court by Linda Laser, who is described in court documents as confined to a wheelchair because of the effects of multiple sclerosis.

Five of the businesses named in the suits are in Sag Harbor. They are the Apple Bank for Savings, Goldberg’s Famous Bagels, the American Hotel, Sen Restaurant, and a Corcoran Real Estate building on the south end of Main Street. Other suits have targeted Ralph Lauren, The Palm, and Vineyard Vines in East Hampton Village. Saunders Real Estate and the Golden Pear café in Southampton Village have also been named.

The suits have been filed in recent months by attorney Darryn G. Solotoff of Melville, who in an interview this week, said he specialized in discrimination law, including ADA cases, and said he took a special interest in the cause because his own brother had been injured in a car accident and confined to a wheelchair.

“The law has been on the books since 1990,” he said, adding that Ms. Laser was simply exercising her right to visit places of business on the East End. “Just because she is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean she shouldn’t go to Sag Harbor or the Hamptons,” he said.

The suits seek at least $50,000 in damages, plus $500 for each barrier or violation of the law, as well as attorney’s fees. They also ask the court to order the businesses to correct the violations.

Efforts to reach Ms. Laser, who filed a number of similar suits in Northport last year, were unsuccessful. Although she is listed in the suits as a “tester,” or a disabled person who searches out businesses that do not meet ADA requirements for potential legal action, Mr. Solotoff said she was not his employee and that they had no business relationship other than as attorney and client.

Business owners named in the suit were mostly unwilling to talk, with the handful reached saying they had not yet been served and only knew about the suits through the grapevine. Others said they wanted to wait until they had an opportunity to discuss the matter with the broader business community before commenting.

Ted Conklin, the owner of the American Hotel, said meeting the letter of the law in Sag Harbor, with its dozens of irregular, old buildings, with narrow doorways, limited space for restrooms, and built-in barriers like steps at the sidewalk, would be particularly difficult.

“This should be a village-wide aspiration and that requires the village government to take the lead — we all want to accommodate the handicapped, but there have to be practical answers,” he said. “Instead of 12 people hiring 12 lawyers and 12 ADA consultants at considerable cost, I would suggest the village hire an ADA specialist and work with the Chamber of Commerce and businesses to do the best job it can.”

Sag Harbor Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said she was aware of the suits and said the village would work with businesses, which have already been struggling under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, to find practical solutions

She added that it was perhaps serendipitous that the village had been asked to join the East Hampton Town and Village Disabilities Advisory Board late last year and had assigned Garry Kenney, a village code enforcement officer to represent it on that panel.

“We are aware that a handful of Sag Harbor businesses and building owners are being sued over compliance issues with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce President Gavin Menu, who is the co-publisher of the Express News Group. “We held a private meeting via Zoom last week and connected a few of the businesses involved with a pair of local attorneys and some others familiar with the law. Since that meeting, we’ve been in communication with officials from Sag Harbor Village and a few other experts on the law. Ultimately, we want to provide our members with as much information as possible so they can proactively do what’s necessary to make sure their buildings are compliant with the ADA law.”

“Most of the buildings in the Sag Harbor business district were built long before the ADA was passed into law, and full compliance can be complicated for some of these building owners and their tenants,” he added. “There are also specific provisions of the law having to do with historic districts. The best thing any business or building owner can do right now is educate themselves on the specific needs of their building.”

Glenn Hall, the chairman of both the Disabilities Advisory Board and the East End Disabilities Group, is a longtime advocate for the disabled. He stressed that everyone knows someone who will become disabled either through accident, illness, or age. “It’s about civil rights,” he said of the ADA. “It’s about being able to participate in life.”

Although Mr. Hall, who requires crutches after contracting polio as a child, said he obviously supports the effort to bring businesses into compliance, he added that in some states, especially California, lawsuits emphasizing the collection of damages over bringing a business into compliance have proliferated, making those who have been sued feel like they are being subjected to a form of legal extortion.

But he added the ADA has been on the books for three decades, giving many property owners ample time to come into compliance. Besides, he added, the law includes “the readily achievable” clause, which gives a business an out if it can show that making the changes required to bring it into compliance would be impossible to achieve or drive it out of business.

Although Mr. Solotoff said he was willing to work with businesses that want to make a good-faith effort to correct their deficiencies under the ADA, he said just because Sag Harbor was a historic village was no excuse for failing to do everything possible to provide equal access to the disabled.

“It’s like someone raising their hand and saying, ‘I’m not fixing this because I’m in a historic district and I should be allowed to discriminate,’” he said. “It’s all good. I don’t care if someone in a wheelchair can get into my store.’”