Life with MS

A Disabled Attorney, a Hotel and the ADA

By Nelson M. Stern
When you make a reservation at a hotel do you ask if they have a bathroom? Do you ask if they have doors and lights in the rooms, or even if there is an entrance? Of course not. But put the word “accessible” before each of these items and you have the questions that I, a disabled person, must ask a hotel when making a reservation.
Fortunately, Congress saw the need for legislative action to protect the Disabled community. Just as the Civil Rights Law of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race and religion, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on disability and guarantees the right to full and equal access to places of public accommodation.
Under the ADA, an individual has a disability if “s/he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
The law is enforced by individual lawsuits brought by disabled persons against hotels. I am disabled and committed to enforcing the ADA. These are my responsibilities: I check into a hotel that is believed to be in violation of the ADA. I take pictures of the violations and get a bill proving that I stayed there. I make a reservation to return to the hotel. I send all the documents to my attorney and expert to file a lawsuit against the hotel.
All of the steps in the prior paragraph are required by the ADA in order to have “standing to sue.” The law requires that you actually suffer the discrimination by being denied access to the services. It also requires you to have an intention to return to the hotel to avail yourself to the services offered. This is somewhat paradoxical because it requires you to want to return to a hotel you know to be inaccessible. That is the law.
The initial phone call to a hotel is ironic. I ask do you have an accessible room with a roll-in shower. The reservationist answers “no” with an apologetic voice. I respond sincerely that it’s too bad. It is too bad for them!
In one of the cases, there was a funny incident before one of the district court judges. The defense attorney questioned my purpose in checking into their hotel. He wanted to defeat my “standing to sue” by showing I had no reason for going to the hotel other than to be able to sue them. The law is divided as to whether a person has “standing to sue” if he has no reason for going to the hotel other than to correct the ADA violations. The issue is whether a disabled person can be “a private attorney general” and file a lawsuit for the benefit of the disabled community.
This judge rebuked the defense attorney by pointing out that if Gov. Spitzer can check into a hotel with a prostitute, why can’t Mr. Stern do the same for this more noble purpose?
I am proud to report that in almost all of the cases, the hotel entered a settlement agreement or consent decree to correct most of their violations. They also agreed to pay reasonable attorneys and expert fees.
My procedure in every case is to have my expert and lawyer conduct an inspection of the hotel after the date negotiated for the completion of corrections to confirm compliance with our agreement. I am doing what I can to make the lives of the disabled a little less burdensome, one hotel at a time.
If you have questions call the Department of Justice at 800-514-0301. You can also go to the Accessibility Board’s website at
Nelson Stern is a 51-year-old lawyer and father of three sons. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in college. He works from his New York home and only handles cases against hotels under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He can be reached at