Three years ago my girlfriend Amy was the victim of a lawsuit at Madame X, the Greenwich Village bar she owns and I help her run.
We were offended because the complaint claimed that the bar where we had worked for 25 years discriminated against people with disabilities.
And we were furious because we knew it was a shakedown. Hundreds of small businesses like ours in New York have suffered the same scam, targeted by unscrupulous attorneys who use the Americans with Disabilities Act to sue, while doing little to improve access for people disabilities.
Worse still, the lawyer who prosecutes we was Stuart Finkelstein.
Finkelstein is infamous for filing bogus lawsuits on behalf of unsuspecting members of the public to extract money from companies that can’t afford to go to court.
Her lawsuit against Madame X in Manhattan federal court said a wheelchair user named Dino Antolini visited our bar in August 2019 but was unable to enter because there was no ramp.
The lawsuit also alleged that we “made a considered, but unlawful, decision that customers with disabilities are unworthy. This action seeks to right that wrong.
Like many places in midtown Manhattan, our bar has an entrance below street level. Although we provide a fully equipped disabled bathroom and have successfully accommodated guests with special needs since our opening in 1997, a ramp is simply not possible due to building constraints. (Our staff assists anyone who needs help getting in.)
Faced with an apparent seizure of money, Amy asked me to find an attorney to dispute the claim.
“We have to take a stand,” she said.
The lawyer I chose, Joshua Levin-Epstein of Levin-Epstein & Associates in Midtown, had fought Finkelstein before — and was fed up with his antics.
“We know him very well,” he told me.
Of all the lawyers I interviewed, Levin-Epstein was the only one to win a case against Finkelstein, and he seemed up for the challenge of opposing him again.
He spelled out our options: pay a settlement payment of $15,000 to $30,000 or fight, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal work, with no guarantee that we would win.
Levin-Epstein told me that small businesses almost always settle down, even if they haven’t done anything wrong. “The cost of defending these lawsuits can be prohibitive – well into the six figures,” he said. Cutting a five-figure check is the quickest and easiest solution.
Andrew Chase, co-owner of Cafe Katja, an Austrian restaurant on Orchard Street, went down this route when he was sued by Antolini in 2019, claiming Finkelstein called and threatened his partner shortly after he filed an ADA complaint against their business.
“He was very bossy and rude and said, ‘You’re gonna pay me $30,000 or I’m gonna shut you down,'” Chase told me. He fought in court for a year before settling – for $30,000.
Being the stubborn type, we decided to fight.
But we had no idea how infuriating this case would become.
A little research showed that Finkelstein had portrayed Antolini in over a dozen costumes. The others were similar to ours and riddled with inaccuracies, like a misspelling of our landlord’s name and the wrong size of our bathroom. Was it possible that this plaintiff didn’t know he had sued us?
Eager to find out, I visited Antolini at his home in Queens Village.
He invited me in and sat on his bed as we talked. His speech was laborious, although he made himself understood. “I have Bell’s palsy,” he said, a condition that caused half of his face to fall off. “I was a heavy drinker, but I fell and broke my hip, so I had to quit.”
Asked about Finkelstein putting his name on multiple lawsuits, Antolini recalled something about a lawyer who wanted him to join a class action lawsuit, but he said he didn’t know he had become a plaintiff. unique. He said he didn’t know Madame X bar.
“I was scammed,” he told me.
I submitted these disclosures in my signed affidavit to our judge, Magistrate Stewart Aaron, believing they would help close our case.
No chance. Finkelstein didn’t back down – and the judge seemed eager to hear from Antolini himself.
We assumed, given what Antolini had told me, that Finkelstein wouldn’t risk having his client appear for a deposition. But after scheduling the appearance twice — and twice canceling at the last minute — Finkelstein was ordered by the judge to proceed with the deposition.
During a Zoom deposition on Aug. 26, 2021, Antolini suddenly changed his tune. He has now claimed he remembers trying to get into Madame X, testifying that he was intrigued by the bar and ‘just wanted to check it out’.
As he spoke, Finkelstein interrupted his testimony with inappropriate objections “that appear to have been designed to drag” the witness, according to Judge Aaron, who disciplined Finkelstein, ordering him to pay a $6,250 fine.
Even so, over the next several months, Finkelstein blighted the process with endless requests, objections, and delays.
“It was frivolous motion after frivolous motion to get you to settle down,” Levin-Epstein told us. “This was a case involving wheelchair access. Very simple. Why did it take more than 300 entries on file? »
Sanctions, relatively rare in federal court, have been imposed three unprecedented times on Finkelstein, who racked up $20,000 in fines for our case alone. (They remain unpaid.)
Finally, on August 17, we received a call from our lawyer. Finally, a judge had dismissed our case – but not because the allegations had no basis or because of Finkelstein’s repeated misconduct. The fact that Finkelstein had pleaded guilty a month earlier to mail fraud for stealing the identities of two people and suing on their behalf was not even a problem.
Instead, Judge George Daniels ruled that Finkelstein’s expert report on Madame X had a “fatal” flaw: There was no recommendation to correct the alleged ADA violations.
One small mistake made by Finkelstein meant that it was all over. We owed him nothing.
Yet we racked up between $25,000 and $30,000 in legal fees — the same amount it would have cost us to pay Finkelstein a settlement. But Amy and I would rather give that money to a good lawyer than to a crook.
Moreover, Finkelstein, 67, will soon be out of business for good.
On the verge of being sentenced for postal fraud on November 15, he faces 41 to 63 months in prison. In addition, he will lose his law degree, because any conviction for a crime automatically results in disbarment.
But that won’t make this problem go away. Finkelstein isn’t the only attorney accused of racking up counterfeit lawsuits or using harassment tactics. Now lawyers are demanding changes so lawsuits like ours don’t have to go to court, and in July the Post asked New York AG Tish James to smash lawyers like Finkelstein.
Our city’s small business owners desperately need someone’s help fast. Because right now we are just targeted by scammers and forced to pay.
Brad Hamilton is a reporter for the New York Post.