Trials & Litigation

Lawyer says she was asked to resign over disability suit; is courthouse accessibility an issue?

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For some lawyers with disabilities, it can be difficult to get to court and to present arguments before judges, according to two lawyers who are raising concerns in a New York Times op-ed and a lawsuit.

One lawyer, Diana Lewis, told of the difficulties in a lawsuit claiming she was asked to resign from the Bronx District Attorney’s office because she joined a class action lawsuit over handicapped access to courthouses, report DNAInfo and the New York Post.

Lewis’ suit, and the New York Times op-ed by Carol Steinberg, both raise issues about seeking accommodations. In Lewis’ case, her request for accommodations was turned down, her suit says. And Steinberg wrote of her own reluctance to ask a judge to accommodate her wheelchair use by coming down from the bench for sidebars.

Her article, Steinberg says, was partly aimed at encouraging others with disabilities to persevere. “I was giving people support to keep doing what they want to do in spite of whatever disability they have,” she tells the ABA Journal. Another goal, she says, was to “combat obliviousness” by people who are unaware of the struggles faced by people with disabilities.

Lewis says in her lawsuit that she began using a wheelchair after an accident, and found it difficult to move between the Bronx Criminal Court, the Bronx Hall of Justice and the Bronx District Attorney’s office. Lewis said the buildings were a block apart, and after a snowstorm the sidewalks can be inaccessible for a week. The only wheelchair ramp at the Criminal Court was unsafe and was open for limited hours, she said.

Lewis’ suit said she had an accident at the Hall of Justice in April 2015 and she left the District Attorney’s office on long-term disability the next month. She said she sought as accommodations a transfer to a narcotics prosecutor’s office in Manhattan or permission to work from home, but both requests were turned down.

Steinberg wrote about the last case she tried in 2013 and how difficult it was to argue sidebars before the judge, who sat at a four-foot-high wooden desk mounted on a two-foot-high platform. Steinberg had to stretch her neck to communicate with the judge, while the opposing counsel stood and made eye contact with the judge as he spoke.

The first time she had asked a judge for an accommodation, Steinberg explained in the New York Times, was many years before when she was still able to stand on weak legs. The judge allowed Steinberg to remain seated while addressing the judge and jurors. But the judge told jurors that Steinberg had a health condition that made it difficult for her to stand. Steinberg was embarrassed. “After that,” she wrote, “I tried not to draw attention to my needs in the courtroom.”

In other cases that followed, Steinberg wrote, she had overcome the problem of speaking to the judge by trying cases with a tall law partner, who would help handle matters at sidebar. In other cases, judges voluntarily came down from the bench to handle sidebar matters.

In the 2013 case, the judge “remained behind her high perch. And my own lack of confidence prevented me from asking her to make the accommodation,” Steinberg wrote.

There were several sidebars, Steinberg said, as the opposing counsel frequently interrupted the testimony of Steinberg’s expert witness. “My opponent’s tactic of continually interrupting and bringing us to sidebar, while I don’t know if it was purposeful, was effective,” Steinberg wrote. “We spent long periods with the judge agreeing with him and admonishing me from on high. The flow of my expert’s testimony was disrupted. …

“The impact on me was that my identity as a trial lawyer was shaken. As I stared at that wood in front of me, with the angry voice of my opponent and the obliging voice of the young judge above, I had one recurring thought: Maybe it’s time to do something else. I felt I had no business trying a case in a wheelchair.”

The opposing counsel offered a settlement at the end of the day, and Steinberg’s clients accepted it.

“I haven’t tried a case since that day but will again,” Steinberg wrote. “I’m always encouraged to see newer courthouses that have ramps at the judge’s bench for lawyers like me. But if my next case isn’t in one of those courthouses, I will ask the judge to come down. Those of us who need accommodation so that we can keep doing what we love must have the courage and self-respect to seek them, even if we would rather we didn’t have to.”

Steinberg tells the ABA Journal that she has won several cases after she began using a wheelchair in 2004, including one of her largest verdicts. She says she loves trying cases, though she hasn’t had a trial since 2013 because so many cases settle.

She has heard from many supportive people since the op-ed was published, and is happy that so many article commenters with disabilities said they have been inspired to speak up when they need accommodations. A small subset, however, offered negative responses, even suggesting that she shouldn’t be trying cases. They are wrong, she says. “I am great at trying cases.”

Second to the last paragraph corrected at 8:20 a.m. to state that Steinberg won several cases after she began using a wheelchair in 2004.

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