By Sabina Mollot
Last week, a disabled resident of Queens who was suing around 50 business over lack of access to him in his wheelchair was revealed to be able to walk in an article by the New York Post. The paper then went on to report that all the lawsuits were being dropped by the man’s attorney, Jeffrey Neiman, who claimed he had no idea that his client’s claims of being unable to walk weren’t legit.
Meanwhile, one of the businesses targeted by the plaintiff, Arik Matatov, was Asia Market, an Asian grocery store in Gramercy that closed on Tuesday. The store has been open for about a year on Third Avenue between East 18th and 19th Streets.
Reached by phone on Monday, a woman who introduced herself as one of the owners, said the lawsuit, despite having been reportedly dropped, was a factor in the decision to close.
Naomi Kwong said, “It is one of the reasons,” saying that she was first contacted by an attorney earlier this year with a Fed Exed complaint of inaccessibility. Thinking it seemed fishy, she then looked up Neiman and his client online and found information on what appeared to be a quickly drafted website that was created in January.
The complaint itself struck her as looking very fake, so Kwong just ignored it. Then, “A couple of months later I was served.”
The Post had previously reported that businesses were targeted either for lack of wheelchair ramps or inadequate space for Matatov in his wheelchair. Businesses were asked for $50,000 to avoid a multi-million dollar lawsuit.
Asked if she was relieved about the suits being dropped by the attorney, Kwong said yes, although she already feels like she’s been put through hell.
“He really ruined me. I’m not going to lie,” she said. “This was my first time having my own store and I really questioned myself as if I really did hurt this guy. Just talking about this is making me emotional. He made me cynical about the world. So yes, it’s a relief because this was a heavy burden on me and I really thought I was wrong.”
Still, she now feels some pity for the man who sued her.
“I kind of feel bad for this guy. He’s only 24. When I read about him, I thought he was in his 30s, but he’s 20-something.”
She later had a discussion with another local retailer who said Matatov had targeted businesses from 33rd Street down to Little Italy. A couple of other businesses targeted in Gramercy included Chawla’s 2, an Indian restaurant, and Tivoli diner. Tivoli’s owner Gus Kassimis told the Post he’d actually agreed to settle with Matatov for $5,000, but after reading the coverage on what appeared to be a mass Manhattan shakedown, he stopped payment on the check.
As for Asia Market, Kwong gave a couple of other reasons for the closure of the business.
One was that an air conditioning compressor on the roof of the building was found not to be up to code and bringing it to compliance would have involved getting an engineer to submit a blueprint. A representative from the Fire Department gave Kwong a ballpark estimate of $10,000 for this project. “That’s a little absurd,” she said on this, adding that recent deaths in her family, along with the aforementioned lawsuit led to their decision to close.
“We decided it was time to end the chapter,” she said. “It’s been hard, but we’re going to turn the key.”
Town & Village called Matatov at his home in Rego Park, and a woman who picked up said she was his mother and that her son wasn’t allowed to talk. The woman said, “Comments and everything, you have to talk to our attorney. I have been told not to talk to anybody,” She then said that it was her son who was being scammed. “He is disabled as you know,” she said, before hanging up.
The phone at a law office number listed for Neiman wasn’t picked up when Town & Village called.
At Tivoli, Kassimis told Town & Village threats of lawsuits are common for small businesses. He’d actually settled another one at a restaurant in Murray Hill last year for $10,000.
With Matatov’s threatened litigation, Kassimis, like Kwong, was initially concerned, although he said he doesn’t believe the plaintiff was ever actually inside his business.
“Originally he said he couldn’t get into the store. Then he said the bathrooms weren’t wide enough,” said Kassimis. “They may not be up to code but we were grandfathered in. The doors are up to code. It’s a fire hazard if you’re not. He never even came in. I had never seen him and I went to my manager and employees. I went to every possible worker to see if they’d seen him because you can’t forget somebody having a hard time because you would help. So nobody had seen him.”
Still, he received documents from a lawyer that asked for $50,000 for his client’s “grief and for his embarrassment.”
Through his own attorney, Kassimis reached out to Neiman and they eventually agreed on a payment of $5,000, which now the diner owner is hoping to get back.
Such quietly made deals, he said, upset him not just because of the money but because they help attorneys more than they truly help disabled people.
“This is a form of extortion; one person benefits,” said Kassimis, who is disabled himself having been born missing a few fingers on his left hand. “I’ve never used my disability as an excuse for anything,” he added.
“In the old days you had the mob shaking you down,” said Kassmis. “Now you have these people.”
In response to the situation, Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, an attorney who used to work for the Urban Justice Center, said he’ll be focusing on the issue of accessibility in Albany once the legislative session begins.
“I don’t appreciate what this person is doing or what the attorneys who are supporting this effort are doing, but making New York City a more accessible place is something we should be doing,” said Epstein. “New York is far behind on disability access. Less than one fourth of the subway system is accessible.”
He suggested that business owners could be helped to make their spaces more compliant with low-income loans or tax abatements.
“Even if they could pay (for wheelchair ramps), they don’t have the resources, the expertise, the technology,” said Epstein, who sits on the Assembly’s small business committee. “It takes a lot. It is a real issue and an important one that we need to grapple with in New York City.”