Posted Aug 12, 2006 12:15 am CDT
Tirone, whose last practice address was in Rochester, N.Y., represented a deaf woman named Kathleen Culhane Rozanski in a divorce. The government alleges Tirone failed to provide a qualified sign language interpreter. Instead, during meetings Rozanski read his lips, or they used pen and paper. Between meetings, they communicated by fax or by phone using the National Relay Service.
The 2004 settlement agreement contends Tirone charged Rozanski for the full amount of time he spent communicating with her even though conversations took longer because of the absence of an interpreter.
The upshot: Tirone had to refund $2,200 in fees and forgo further payment from Rozanski. He also had to publish a notice in his local newspaper stating that he welcomes clients with disabilities, particularly those with hearing problems, and will provide, without charge, qualified sign language interpreters when requested to do so.
(Both Tirone and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which negotiated the settlement with Tirone, failed to respond to requests for interviews.)
The settlement serves as a reminder that law offices are places of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and must provide reasonable access to people with disabilities.
But some solo and small-firm lawyers fear that such accommodations can present financial and logistical hardships.
“I’m not sure just what I’d do in that situation. Maybe I’d call the bar association and see if I could get a grant to help pay for the interpreter,” says Glenn Dornfeld, a solo lawyer in New York City.
The ADA requires that “reasonable accommodations” be provided, but says the cost can be considered in determining the reasonableness.
In the Tirone case, the settlement agreement appears to indicate the government believed the cost of the interpreter was not an undue burden, and Tirone should not have charged for the extra time it took to communicate with the client.
Dornfeld has never had a deaf client, but an unsettling experience with a client in a wheelchair makes him reluctant to go to the homes of those who can’t visit his office. The client was going through a divorce, and he had muscular dystrophy and congestive heart failure.
Dornfeld met with the client and his soon-to-be ex-wife at the marital home. As negotiations grew heated, the wife repeatedly told the man he should “drop dead.”
“I looked over at him, and he was slumped in his wheelchair. I asked the wife if he was OK. She said, ‘Yes, this happens all the time.’ Then she looked closer, and he was not breathing. She called an ambulance, … but it was too late,” Dornfeld says.
The incident left Dornfeld so shaken that he now prefers to find a suitable neutral space if clients are unable to come to his office. “If I have someone who needs some sort of service, [such as an] interpreter, I would try to find a place that we could meet where that service is provided,” Dornfeld says.
Christy Schmidt-Noe has a lot of experience accommodating clients with physical limitations. The Brick, N.J., solo lawyer practices elder law out of a second-floor walk-up office. “If someone can’t make the climb, I will go to them, or I will meet them in a conference room I can sometimes borrow from the firm downstairs,” she says.
Schmidt-Noe thinks it is important to ask clients at the first opportunity what sort of accommodations they need and expect. “If you simply cannot accommodate the client because of the prohibitive cost, you’ve got to tell them up front. Don’t waste anyone’s time, and don’t charge them for the consultation,” Schmidt-Noe says.
Pausing, Schmidt-Noe asks rhetorically, “So how does a blind or deaf client get services? How do you defray those costs? What’s fair? I’m not sure I know the answer to that.”