By Peter Franceschina, Sun Sentinel
1:25 PM EDT, August 4, 2011
As his law partner's investment fraud scheme grew ever larger, Stuart Rosenfeldt rode high atop South Florida legal circles with millions of dollars in compensation, a life glittering with expensive jewelry and a gift Ferrari.
These days, Rosenfeldt is acting as legal front man for a plaintiff who hunts for businesses to sue.
Since mid-June, Rosenfeldt has filed 13 lawsuits against small local businesses or their landlords, alleging their premises violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by not allowing full access to people using wheelchairs. In such lawsuits, often referred to as "drive-by" litigation, the person suing doesn't collect damages – just legal costs and fees to pay his or her lawyer.
It's a long way from his height, when Rosenfeldt was the president and co-owner of the Las Olas Boulevard law firm Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, one of the most highly visible firms in South Florida's legal, political and charity circles before Scott Rothstein's $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme collapsed in fall 2009.
Rothstein has been sent to federal prison for 50 years, and Rosenfeldt may not yet be in the clear himself – he does not face criminal charges, but he has been forced to hire tax and criminal defense lawyers, settle a bankruptcy clawback lawsuit for $1.6 million and grapple with the IRS. He also is under investigation by The Florida Bar.
Rosenfeldt says he is filing the lawsuits to stand up for the rights of the disabled.
"I'm doing this because I make a living at it, and I do good deeds," Rosenfeldt, 56, of Boca Raton, told the Sun Sentinel in an interview.
That's hardly the view of the merchants and landlords at the Crossroads Shopping Center in Fort Lauderdale who have been targeted by the suits. They say they are victims of a form of legal extortion.
"It's a blatant abuse of the law," said Jackie McNichols, who along with her husband, Gordon, owns Space Modern, a small re-seller of high-end furniture. "In this economy, some of us are barely making it."
The lawsuit filed against Space Modern's landlord alleges that the door sill is higher than the half-inch allowed under the law. The suit says there are "several" other, unspecified violations and that an outside ADA expert will be hired to identify all the problems.
In the ADA litigation, Rosenfeldt filed 11 of the suits on behalf of Charles Bado, a Fort Lauderdale man who has a well-established track record for suing, having served as plaintiff in nearly three dozen previous disability cases, court records show.
When it comes to businesses that don't have a wheelchair ramp, "It's akin to putting up a sign saying, 'No Colored People Are Allowed,'" Bado, who often uses a wheelchair, said in a deposition he gave last December. "So I take a very stern position regarding properties that are not ADA compliant."
Bado began his lawsuits last year after registering a for-profit company called Center for Enforcement of Disability Rights.
As of March, Bado had settled 27 disability lawsuits. His attorney at the time, Nolan Klein of Miami, initially paid Bado's center $1,500 in each case to serve as an ADA expert to identify businesses that were non-compliant with the law, then reduced that amount to $1,250.
For those 27 cases, Klein collected $166,745 in fees and costs from businesses that settled, and paid Bado's center $44,250, court records show. The settlement amounts typically ranged from $5,000 to $10,000.
The Family Thrift Store in Lauderdale Lakes, a non-profit operation that benefits the needy, was the first business hit with one of Bado's suits, 18 days after he created the center.
"That is his profession," said Jack Fontaine, owner of the thrift store. "I settled the thing out of court. We were breaking the federal law. The law firm was within their rights."
Fontaine had to hire an attorney, and paid $8,000 to cover Bado's legal costs. He modified his handicapped parking spaces and wheelchair ramps, and renovated his bathrooms.
"I will have about $15,000 into it," Fontaine said. "It was not pleasant, I can assure you."
'Eighty strong cases'
This spring, Bado was still pursuing seven lawsuits that had not yet settled, involving The Hut Lounge & Package Store off Sunrise Boulevard, Texas Hold Em BBQ in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Old Heidelberg Deli and the neighboring Old Heidelberg Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, among other businesses.
Three of the businesses were represented by attorney Chris Kleppin, who moved to get the cases dismissed, alleging that Bado did not actually patronize the shops and restaurants he sued, and that he was profiting from the lawsuits.
"He wants to sue as many as he can, as fast has he can," Kleppin wrote in a court document, adding that "it is clear that plaintiff's lawsuits are a scheme or artifice to use the court system to defraud and extort businesses."
In the deposition, Bado said he could not reveal how much he was profiting from the lawsuits because the settlements were confidential. A judge ordered Klein to file a report detailing the settlements and payments to Bado's center. Within days the remaining cases were dropped.
Bado needed a new attorney. He posted an online solicitation saying the center serves as a "philanthropic organization" that has "earned an excellent reputation among the disabled community."
"Now we have a dozen plaintiffs with about 80 strong cases," Bado wrote. "I'm finding this area of law has too many attorney scofflaws with ruined reputations. The 'Center' wants to hear from law firms with honorable reputations to rep our clients in enforcing [ADA] cases in Broward County."
In an interview with the Sun Sentinel, Bado said he had a tough time finding a new attorney before deciding on Rosenfeldt.
"There are some lawyers, quite frankly, I don't want anything to do with. They are just not as ethical as I would want to affiliate myself or the center with," Bado said. "If you get to know Mr. Rosenfeldt, you will know he is not motivated by money."
The law was designed to be enforced by individuals through the courts, said Silvia Yee, a staff attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif.
"The reality is there are a lot of small businesses out there, and many, many of them are inaccessible. Many people can't get into the businesses, but they don't want to bring lawsuits, so they can't get into their local businesses," Yee said.
Bado says he is an unapologetic activist, advocating for the civil rights of the disabled. He railed against businesses that have not taken steps to comply with ADA laws, which were passed 20 years ago.
"My mission is to bring to social consciousness the world of the disabled community," he said.
Bado lives in a two-story townhome in Victoria Park, and says he barely survives on a meager disability check. He says he broke his neck in a fall down some stairs in 2006. He can walk short distances, up to two blocks he admitted in the deposition, but only in great pain.
"Could I get out of my wheelchair, and walk up their stoop? Definitely," he told the Sun Sentinel. "Would it be very painful for me to walk through their store? Definitely."
Bado said he recently visited the Crossroads Shopping Center but was blocked from getting into some businesses in his wheelchair. Since the complex was built more than 50 years ago many of the fixes would be expensive.
Bado filed suits against the businesses or their landlords, including Space Modern, the furniture store Cargo, Estuardo's Hair Studio and Pond Hoppers British Groceries.
"I think it's legal extortion and they need to stop, especially in this economy," said Estuardo Velasquez, owner of the hair salon. "He has a history of doing this to make a living."
The suit against Velasquez's salon is virtually identical to the suit filed against Space Modern's landlord – it alleges the door sill is too high, and says that an ADA expert will document all the violations. Velasquez says he does not remember Bado coming into the salon.
Rosenfeldt said he has declined to file some suits, because the violations were minor. He acknowledged he is doing the work so he can collect fees, but he said his fees are "reasonable."
"I do recognize that some lawyers who handled these cases created the impression these cases were all about fees," he said. "They had people who would go up and down the streets. We called them drive-bys."
He said Bado's lawsuits, by contrast, involve businesses in his neighborhood that he wants to be able to patronize.
Bado would not say how much his center is collecting in fees for bringing the lawsuits, but he said that the center has to pay for an outside ADA expert, since he says he can no longer inspect the businesses and also serve as plaintiff.
"I don't take the money in, the center takes the money in," he said, adding he pays himself between $500 and $700 a month from the center.
He vowed to continue ferreting out businesses that don't comply with the law.
"If I wanted to sue everybody," Bado said, "there is no limit to the number of people I could sue."
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