Behind a pageant, busy lawyers

Representatives of the Hollywood, Fla.-based law firm of Schwartz Zweben & Associates have played a substantial role behind the scenes in helping organize, promote and support the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant and some of its state affiliates. And lawyers with the firm have filed more than 200 lawsuits in at least seven states and the District of Columbia on behalf of at least 13 pageant participants, “including state and national titleholders, state coordinators and pageant judges”. Among them: more than two dozen filed in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley since December on behalf of local coordinator Gina Hackel. In March, Janeal Lee of Appleton was stripped by pageant authorities of her title as Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin; she believes it is because she was critical of the pageant’s role in lawsuit-promotion, although pageant coordinators deny that and say she broke a rule against being photographed out of her wheelchair.

Schwartz Zweben “also conducts seminars instructing contestants on pursuing their legal rights under the disabilities act. Lee remembered a lawyer flying in to give the Wisconsin contestants such a talk at the January pageant in Green Bay.” “The people that are the lawyers, I really like them. We got along,” said Lisa Wartchow, Lee’s 2003 predecessor as Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin. “But I got the feeling they were there specifically to see if any of us … could bring them to our town and find cases for them.”

To verify Hackel’s claims of ADA violations in the Fox Valley, the law firm retained Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2002 Colleen Macort as a consultant, and she visited the businesses last fall, Zweben said.

Macort, who was named as a plaintiff in 63 ADA accessibility lawsuits filed in Florida by the firm over the past three years, also helped prepare the Wisconsin pageant won by Lee.

The Appleton paper (which is kind enough to quote me as part of its coverage) promises a four-part investigation, of which this is Part 1. (Ed Lowe and J.E. Espino, “Pageant, law firm closely linked”, Appleton Post-Crescent, Jul. 17). For more on mass filings of suits under the Americans with Disabilities Act and parallel state and local statutes, see Mar. 18, May 31 and many other entries on our disabled-rights page.

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