Serial suit filer challenged by Old Town hotel

The drive-by lawsuits and quick pay days may have stopped for one Florida attorney and his client who have filed more than 1400 lawsuits against hotels and restaurants claiming various violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Keysnews.com, Mandy Miles, reports the facts.

 

 

A Broward County attorney has sued more than 1,400 Florida hotels and restaurants on behalf of plaintiff Howard Cohan, claiming the businesses violate the Americans with Disabilities Act — and has been collecting attorney’s fees from each.

But attorney Mark Cohen’s gravy train may have stopped in Old Town Key West, where the Marquesa Hotel is standing its ground and refusing to write the check that settles the lawsuits and makes Cohen go away. On the contrary, the hotel’s legal team eagerly anticipates its day in court, and recently convinced a federal judge to hold a hearing on the case in Key West.

Judge Lurana Snow initially scheduled the hearing for 11 a.m. today at the federal courthouse on Simonton Street. But attorney Cohen last Friday — a week before the hearing — asked the judge for a 30-day postponement, saying an attorney from his office who would be handling the hearing would be “unavailable on Oct. 2 due to private medical reasons.”

Snow granted the postponement and rescheduled the hearing for 1 p.m. Dec. 4 in Key West.

Cohen did not return phone calls or emails Thursday from The Citizen.

Cohen filed suit against the downtown boutique hotel on July 31, claiming his disabled client, Howard Cohan, was the victim of discrimination because the Marquesa Hotel does not have a pool lift, or other method for disabled guests to enter the hotel pool.

In his complaint, Cohen asks the court to rule that the hotel’s absent pool lift indeed violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. Cohen also asks the judge to “award reasonable attorney’s fees, all costs (including, but not limited to court costs and expert fees) and other expenses of suit to the Plaintiff … and such other and further relief as it may deem necessary, just and proper.”

Fort Lauderdale attorney William Salim represents the Marquesa Hotel.

In his response to the lawsuit, Salim denies any wrongdoing on the part of the hotel, and wrote, “The property at issue does not contain a public pool and all amenities are available for use only by registered guests,” Salim’s response states. “At no time did the Plaintiff ever register as a guest at the property and could not have accessed the same.”

Hotel attorney Salim also enlisted the help of ADA expert Bill Norkunas, who helped draft the Americans with Disabilities Act in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Norkunas has been following Cohen’s series of lawsuits and is disgusted by his practice, calling it a “continuing criminal enterprise that boils down to extortion.”

“He’s egregious,” said Norkunas, who agreed to help the Marquesa Hotel with its defense pro bono. Norkunas also said that hotel attorney Salim agreed to limit his fees in order to shed light on these lawsuits, which have cost Keys properties hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Because many of the lawyers representing hotels are real estate lawyers or personal injury lawyers, they’re not always familiar with the specifics of the act,” Norkunas said, walking through the usual process:

A property owner gets sued by Mark Cohen on behalf of plaintiff Howard Cohan, for something such as not having a pool lift, Norkunas outlined.

The owners take the suit to their attorney, who reads the lawsuit and assumes it means the property is supposed to have a pool lift. So he suggests his client spend about $7,500 on a lift and pay Cohen the attorney’s fees he demands in each lawsuit to settle the suit.

“Most lawyers figure it’ll cost the property owner less to settle the suit than take it to court,” Norkunas said.

“He gets about $4,500 in attorney’s fees for each case he settles,” Norkunas said, doing some quick math. “So he files 1,400 suits in Florida, times $4,500 per case, and he’s looking at more than $6 million.”

But Cohen is not entitled to many of the attorney fees he’s collecting, Norkunas said. Furthermore, he added, most of the hotels Cohen sues on behalf of Howard Cohan are not required to have the pool lifts on which the suits are based.

“The specifics of the law state that a property only has to have a pool lift if it’s new construction, so it can be installed from the beginning, or if the installation of a lift is ‘readily achievable’ for a modest expenditure. And in the federal registry, the ADA defines modest expenditure as $500,” Norkunas said.

He also explained that the Americans with Disabilities Act states that once a defendant — in this case a hotel — fixes whatever barrier that limited a disabled person’s access, “then the case is moot and the defendant is not responsible for the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.

“Mark Cohen is not entitled to a penny of attorney’s fees for any of these lawsuits he’s settled,” Norkunas said, adding that the ADA also expressly prohibits Howard Cohan, the perennial plaintiff, from receiving any compensatory damages from an ADA lawsuit.

“In other words, a disabled plaintiff cannot legally receive any financial benefit from these ADA cases. Would any plaintiff agree to be a serial plaintiff for Mark Cohen in hundreds of cases without making a dime?” Norkunas said.

“I planned to say all this in federal court [today]. But Cohen is petrified to come to court. If he was doing the right thing, he would have shown up in court [today.] I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t show up at the Dec. 4 hearing.”

Judge Snow, in her order granting the postponement, typed into the docket records, in all capitals, “ALL PARTIES AND THEIR COUNSEL MUST ATTEND.”

“Judge Snow is the first federal judge to require Cohen and Cohan to appear in court to answer for all these lawsuits,” Norkunas said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if Cohen dropped his lawsuit against the Marquesa Hotel between now and the December hearing.

“But the best thing for the Marquesa Hotel — him dropping the suit — would be the worst thing for everyone else fighting this fight against this guy and these lawsuits,” Norkunas said. “So now we wait until Dec. 4.”

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