Three years ago, my girlfriend Amy got hit with 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’ve worked for 25 years discriminated against the disabled.
And we were infuriated because we knew it was a shakedown. Hundreds of small businesses like ours in New York City have experienced the same scam, targeted by unscrupulous lawyers who use the Americans with Disabilities Act to sue, while doing little to improve access for the disabled.
Even worse, the lawyer suing us was Stuart Finkelstein.
Finkelstein is infamous for filing bogus suits on behalf of unsuspecting members of the public to squeeze money out of businesses who can’t afford to go to trial.
His claim against Madame X in Manhattan federal court stated that a wheelchair user named Dino Antolini visited our bar in August 2019 but was unable to come in because there was no ramp.
The suit also alleged that we “made a considered, but unlawful, decision that disabled customers are not worthy. This action seeks to right that wrong.”
Like many locations in downtown Manhattan, our bar has an entrance below street level. Though we provide a fully equipped handicapped bathroom, and have successfully accommodated guests with special needs since we opened in 1997, a ramp simply isn’t possible due to the building’s constraints. (Our staff assists anyone who requires help getting in.)
Facing an apparent money grab, Amy asked me to find a lawyer to challenge the claim.
“We have to make a stand,” she said.
The lawyer I chose, Joshua Levin-Epstein of Levin-Epstein & Associates in Midtown, had battled Finkelstein previously — and was fed up with his antics.
“We’re very familiar with him,” he told me.
Of all the lawyers I interviewed, Levin-Epstein was the only one who’d actually won a case against Finkelstein and he seemed up for the challenge of opposing him again.
He spelled out our options: fork over a settlement payment of $15,000 to $30,000 or fight, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal work, with no guarantees we’d win.
Levin-Epstein told me that small businesses almost always settle, even if they did nothing wrong. “The cost of defending these suits can be prohibitively high — well into six figures,” he said. Cutting a five-figure check is the quickest, easiest out.
Andrew Chase, a co-owner of Cafe Katja, an Austrian restaurant on Orchard Street, took that route when he got sued by Antolini in 2019, saying Finkelstein called and threatened his partner shortly after filing an ADA claim against their business.
“He was very assertive and crude and said, ‘You’re gonna pay me $30,000 or I’m gonna close you down,’” Chase told me. He fought in court for a year before settling — for $30,000.
Being the stubborn sort, we decided to fight.
But we didn’t know just how maddening this case was about to become.
A little research showed that Finkelstein had represented Antolini in more than a dozen suits. The others were similar to ours, and riddled with inaccuracies, such as misspelling the name of our landlord and citing the wrong dimensions of our bathroom. Was it possible this plaintiff was unaware that he’d sued us?
Keen to find out, I paid a visit to Antolini at his home in Queens Village.
He invited me in and sat on his bed as we talked. His speech was labored, though he made himself understood. “I have Bell’s palsy,” he said, a condition that caused half his face to droop. “I used to be a heavy drinker, but I fell and broke my hip so I had to stop.”
Asked about Finkelstein putting his name on several lawsuits, Antolini recalled something about a lawyer wanting him to join a class-action case, but he said he was unaware he’d become a sole claimant. He said he didn’t know the bar Madame X.
“I was scammed,” he told me.
I submitted these revelations in my signed affidavit to our judge, magistrate Stewart Aaron, thinking they would help bring our matter to a close.
No such luck. 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 sit for a deposition. But after twice scheduling the appearance — and twice cancelling at the last minute — Finkelstein was ordered by the judge to make the deposition happen.
Over a Zoom deposition on Aug. 26, 2021, Antolini suddenly changed his tune. He now claimed he remembered trying to enter 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 improper objections “which appear to have been designed to coach” the witness, according to judge Aaron, who sanctioned Finkelstein, ordering him to pay $6,250 in fines.
Even so, during the next several months, Finkelstein gummed up the process with endless motions, objections and delays.
“It was frivolous motion after frivolous motion in order to get you to settle,” Levin-Epstein told us. “This was a case involving wheelchair access. Very simple. Why did it need more than 300 docket entries?”
Sanctions, relatively rare in federal court, were imposed an unprecedented three times on Finkelstein, who racked up $20,000 in fines for our case alone. (They remain unpaid.)
Finally, on Aug. 17, we got a call from our lawyer. At last, a judge had thrown out our case — but not because the allegations had no merit or because of Finkelstein’s repeated misconduct. Nor was it even an issue that Finkelstein had pleaded guilty a month earlier to mail fraud for stealing the identities of two people and filing lawsuits on their behalf.
Instead, judge George Daniels ruled that Finkelstein’s expert’s report on Madame X had a “fatal” flaw: there was no recommendation to fix the purported ADA violations.
Just one tiny mistake made by Finkelstein meant it was all over. We owed him nothing.
Still, 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 a scammer.
What’s more, Finkelstein, 67, will soon be out of business for good.
Set to be sentenced for mail fraud Nov. 15, he faces 41 to 63 months in jail. Plus, he’ll lose his law license, as any felony conviction automatically leads to disbarment.
But that won’t make this problem go away. Finkelstein is not the only attorney accused of piling up copycat suits or using harassment tactics. Now, advocates are howling for changes so suits like ours don’t have to go to court, and in July, The Post called on New York AG Tish James to stomp out lawyers like Finkelstein.
Our city’s small business owners desperately need help from someone fast. Because right now, we’re simply being targeted by conmen and forced to pay up.
Brad Hamilton is a reporter for the New York Post.