Editorial: Save mom and pop from scam suits

Just in case anyone was thinking that things are just too easy these days for proprietors of small businesses in this city, here is yet more proof that their problems are a lot bigger than Amazon and changing consumer preferences.

Many mom-and-pop shops, who already face an uphill battle thanks to the uncertainty of lease renewals, endless fees and fines from the city and rising rents, generally cannot afford to get tangled up in lengthy litigation battles. So it wasn’t surprising to learn that at least a couple of local businesses blinked when threatened by a potential lawsuit from a serial plaintiff charging discrimination against the disabled.

Access for wheelchair users and other people with mobility challenges is very much a real issue; one that is thankfully finally getting some attention thanks to a recent lawsuit that is trying to stop the L train shutdown.

That litigation has already successfully drawn attention to the willful ignoring of the needs of the disabled to get around the city on mass transit like anyone else. However, that isn’t what was filed by plaintiff Arik Matatov, a wheelchair-using man and his attorney, against dozens of small businesses in Manhattan, while, the New York Post revealed last week, he can actually walk.

The business owners who were targeted, not knowing this, naturally panicked, not only over possibly losing their shirts, but over concern they were actually causing a would-be customer harm by not having fully ADA-accessible retail or restaurant spaces. As if bringing these venues up to code is something that they could accomplish themselves when so few retailers own their spaces and when many buildings were built before the implementation of the ADA.

While disabled people surely have the right to demand more access than what’s currently available, targeting individual businesses by threatening lawsuits is the wrong way to go about it. The Post revealed that the businesses targeted by Matatov included some he was not even likely to use like a bridal shop. That his attorney didn’t question this or the fact that so many businesses were on the litigation hit list is also a good indication that the claims of lack of access were an excuse to try and squeeze them for money.

But the businesses owners who were sued didn’t necessarily have any way to know about the other marks. Tivoli’s owner told Town & Village this week that this is not even the first time he paid up to avoid a lawsuit over access. Asia Market’s owner was so upset about the threat of a lawsuit (as well as some other building code issues) she’s opting out of her business completely.

While we believe many disability access complaints have merit, there will always be opportunists looking to take advantage of loopholes in laws aimed at protecting the vulnerable.

Elected officials must take steps to maintain those protections while also preventing would-be fraudsters from profiteering off the backs of small businesses.

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