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`IT'S A BIG SCAM . . . LEGAL EXTORTION' FORMER MANAGER OF RESTAURANT SAYS HE WAS SHOCKED BY LAWSUIT.

South Florida Sun - Sentinel; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Aug 26, 2001; Bob LaMendola, Shannon O'Boye and Sally Kestin Staff Writers; (Copyright 2001 by the Sun-Sentinel)


Thomas Saladino was shocked when his former employer was sued by a man in a wheelchair who called the Italian restaurant inaccessible.

The lawsuit filed in September portrayed Zuckerello's as an obstacle course for the disabled. No parking spaces. Barriers at the entrance. Counter too high. Restroom too small for a wheelchair. No restroom grab bars. Improper faucet handles. Toilet, soap dispenser, towel dispenser -- all too high.

Saladino, a paraplegic in a wheelchair, had seen none of those problems during the four years he was a manager of the Fort Lauderdale pizza shop. More than a year earlier, he had supervised a renovation to create a large disabled-access restroom.

Look-alike lawsuits

"All I can say is, it's a big scam. This is legal extortion," said Saladino, 47, who is on leave from the restaurant to care for an ill relative.

"I'm a big advocate for the disabled. It is frustrating when you go somewhere and there's no bathroom or a big curb and you can't get in," said Saladino, who was paralyzed by a gunshot during a 1997 argument with a Coral Springs neighbor.

"But this is ridiculous. I never had trouble getting around in there. Nobody ever did. We had wheelchair customers, disabled customers, all the time."

The Zuckerello's suit was one of 13 filed against businesses on the same day -- with identical wording -- by Carlisle Wilson, a quadriplegic, and his lawyers, William Tucker and Lawrence McGuinness.

Restaurant owner Adam Zucker said he settled the suit in three months by making about $200 to correct minor violations and paying Wilson's attorneys $3,700 in legal fees.

"My lawyer told me, if you want to defend it in court, you're going to win, but it's going to cost you $10,000," Zucker said. "So I paid [Tucker] and it went away. That's what they were counting on."

Wilson said the Zuckerello suit had merit, although he can't remember what was wrong there. The fact that Saladino had no trouble is irrelevant. "That's fine and well, but does that cover the deaf person or the deaf mute?" Wilson said. "This isn't about that one person working at that one restaurant. A person who's a paraplegic and can't move from the waist down, I don't even consider them disabled. They're impaired a little bit. They're uncomfortable.

"I'm a quadriplegic. My fingers don't work. And I think the blind guy is more disabled than me and on down the line."

Attorney Tucker declined to comment. Attempts to reach McGuinness with five calls and a visit to his office were unsuccessful.

Weeks after the suit arrived, Zucker set up a meeting with Tucker. The attorney and an aide arrived at the restaurant at 3017 E. Commercial Blvd. with a tape measure, ready to chart violations of the federal disability rights law.

"He was surprised to see me," Saladino said.

Paying the lawyers

Tucker went straight to the bathroom, but found it accessible. The parking was fine. He pressed Zucker to lower the height of the restaurant's bar but backed off when Zucker refused.

In the end, Zucker said both sides agreed on four restroom changes: Lowering grab bars and sink by a few inches, posting a sign at the door and wrapping knee-protecting insulation around sink pipes.

"We took care of everything in two days," Saladino said. Paying the attorneys' bill took two months.

Said Zucker: "I told [Tucker], `Why did you sue me?' If you send me a letter and tell me a handicapped person was in the bathroom and had a hard time getting into the bathroom, I would have fixed it.

"He said, `This is not the way it works.'"

Bob LaMendola can be reached at blamendola@sun-sentinel.com or 954- 356-4526.

Supervised renovation: Thomas Saladino, a paraplegic, uses the entrance sidewalk and ramp at Zuckerello's. He is on leave as manager of the Fort Lauderdale pizza restaurant to care for an ill relative. Saladino was working at the restaurant when it was sued by activists who charged it was not accessible to the disabled.

Staff photo/Robert Azmitia

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