Federal disability laws have done a lot of good widening access to restaurants and other public places for millions of people, but they’ve also opened the doors for shady operators.
Take the case — actually hundreds of cases in South Florida and New York — of a disbarred lawyer and convicted scammer named Stuart Finkelstein.
Finkelstein stole the identity of a Pembroke Pines man with cerebral palsy to sue an American Legion post in Hallandale Beach, claiming it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. His unknowing “client,” Tal Hilson, who gets around in a wheelchair, had never even visited the veterans’ post, which was 19 miles from his Century Village home. The resulting suit and construction costs to rebuild an access ramp nearly forced the small veterans’ facility to shut down.
The fraudulent legal complaint, and a string of other similar ADA suits involving the misuse of Hilson’s name, also led to a lengthy suspension of a Florida lawyer who agreed to work with Finkelstein — though he denied knowing his disbarred associate had concocted their client.
Finkelstein, who was living in Broward County over the past decade, pleaded guilty to a mail fraud conspiracy last year. He faces potential prison time at a federal court sentencing in New York on April 26. Don Agurs, current commander of American Legion Gulfstream Post 310 and a veteran of the Vietnam War, said he hopes Finkelstein spends time behind bars.
“I think it’s despicable — typical of crooked lawyers,” Agurs, 75, told the Miami Herald. “That man should go to jail.”
Abusing the ADA laws
Finkelstein’s scheme, detailed in federal court and Florida Bar records, is an extreme example of abusing the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. But South Florida lawyers in the field say cases like his can create the public perception that ADA lawsuits are frivolous, even fraudulent. That can sully the reputation of legitimate advocates seeking to help the disabled gain access to restaurants, office buildings and shops.
“When the bad publicity comes out, it implies that the ADA is a scam,” said lawyer Matthew Dietz, a professor at the disability law clinic at the Nova Southeastern University College of Law. “When you file claims, you’re behind the eight ball. It makes it more difficult.”
In all, Hilson’s name was used to file ADA lawsuits against about 290 South Florida establishments, including Publix, Flanigan’s and Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale. Hilson, 79, declined to comment for this story, but court records show he insists he did not know his name was being used in lawsuits.
The Hilson cases, all orchestrated by Finkelstein, represent about 3 percent of some 11,000 ADA barrier lawsuits in South Florida over the past decade, federal court records show. That ranks him among the top 10 most prolific ADA plaintiffs, known as “testers,” who are used over and over again as plaintiffs by attorneys specializing in disability access lawsuits. Together, those top 10 testers account for about 7,000 cases — a staggering two-thirds — of the total disability access suits filed over the past decade.
Under ADA law, a tester can visit public establishments or commercial websites to determine whether they comply with the act and can sue on behalf of himself and others with disabilities demanding that violations be fixed. The tester, like a traditional plaintiff, cannot collect financial damages in federal court in Florida. But the suits can generate legal fees for lawyers, typically running in the thousands of dollars for each settlement.
Disbarred in New York
Finkelstein, 57, began practicing law in New York in 1989. But he was disbarred by the state in 2007 after formally resigning because of “attorney misconduct,” court records show.
At some point he moved to Davie, and while living there a decade ago, Finkelstein came to know Hilson through an encounter at a local gas station, according to Florida Bar and federal court records. Finkelstein’s defense attorney, David Bertan, declined to comment for this story. But court records say Finkelstein misappropriated Hilson’s name for hundreds of ADA lawsuits.
Because he was not licensed as a lawyer in Florida, Finkelstein brought the cases to another local attorney, Mark David Cohen, who agreed to file them in federal court in South Florida. Eliot Weitzman, Cohen’s attorney, says that his client was unaware of Finkelstein’s ploy until after most of Hilson’s cases were resolved and Hilson, the duped plaintiff, filed a complaint with the Florida Bar.
It was a lucrative practice, with court records showing that about 210 South Florida cases naming Hilson as the plaintiff generated $650,000 in attorney’s fees through settlements. Cohen withdrew an additional 80 cases involving Hilson after learning of Finkelstein’s scheme., according to Florida Bar records.
About 30 other cases were also filed in New York City, mostly aimed at restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Those produced about $270,000 from settlements in those cases from the targeted establishments, federal court records show.
In November 2019, Finkelstein was arrested on fraud charges in New York, according to a federal court criminal complaint. He was accused of fraudulently targeting about 320 public establishments in ADA lawsuits in both South Florida and New York, and of stealing the identities of disabled people such as Hilson to use them as unwitting plaintiffs between 2013 and 2019. Finkelstein even forged Hilson’s signature on some settlements. Last July, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud and faces a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $200,000 and agreed to pay the U.S. government all of the money he made from the ADA suits.
During his plea hearing, Finkelstein admitted the cases “were fraudulent because the plaintiffs in those lawsuits did not suffer any injury.” Then-U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman in Manhattan said Finkelstein carried out a “galling scheme” that was “as profitable as it was brazen.”
Lawyer another ‘victim’ of scam
For his role, the Florida Supreme Court suspended Cohen in 2018 for five years, public records show. Cohen, 67, has no plans to reapply for his law license. Weitzman, Cohen’s attorney, said his client knew Finkelstein was a disbarred New York lawyer but was using him only as an “expert” in the South Florida cases, paying him $1,000 a case.
Weitzman said Cohen did not initially know Hilson’s name had been hijacked for the lawsuits. He acknowledged Cohen had never met Hilson or confirmed he had agreed to play the role of a plaintiff but said Finkelstein had vouched for Hilson as a legitimate ADA “tester.”
Weitzman said Cohen only learned about the scheme when Hilson filed a complaint with the Florida Bar, and the attorney immediately began cooperating with bar investigators and federal authorities in New York.
“Mark was really, really tricked,” Weitzman told the Miami Herald. “I would argue that Mr. Cohen is the largest victim because he brought these ADA cases in good faith and lost his Florida Bar license in the end. Tal [Hilson] was inconvenienced, but he didn’t lose his livelihood.”
Weitzman also pointed out that despite their origin, the lawsuits had done what the ADA law is supposed to do: Most of the targeted establishments fixed problems that posed barriers to parking, bathrooms and entrances.
“They all acknowledged that these were violations, and they agreed to make the remedies,” he said.
At the Hallandale Beach American Legion post, members don’t see it that way. They already had a handicap ramp at the entrance, for instance, though it did not comply with exacting ADA standards.
The 100-member veterans’ facility had a small budget and would have likely closed without the help of Hallandale Beach officials. The city provided the post with a community grant so it could rebuild the ramp with an ADA-compliant slope. The post also had to pay attorney’s fees of $1,050 as part of the settlement, members said.
“At the time, we were almost bankrupt,” recalled Rick Stoudenmire, a Vietnam War veteran who was post commander when it was sued in 2014. “The lawsuit would have destroyed us if it were not for the help of the city.”
Stoudenmire said he was surprised but pleased to hear authorities were cracking down on lawyers misusing the ADA. “Sooner or later,” he said, “karma bites you in the ass.”