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Law Firm Fights for Disabled People


OAKLAND — For former big-business lawyers Larry Paradis and Sid Wolinsky, the move was a risky about-face: trading the security of corporate work for the dice-roll of championing often-underdog disabled clients.

Their goal was to get corporate institutions to see that people with disabilities would no longer accept being treated as second-class. They spread the word that, if companies refused to obey the law and accommodate the blind, the deaf, the physically and developmentally disabled, well, then they'd see them in court.

Formed in 1993, their Disability Rights Advocates has emerged as one of the nation's most effective plaintiff practices, bringing hundreds of class-action lawsuits against the likes of United Parcel Service, Hertz, Boston University, the California Bar and Bank of America.

Last year, they prompted medical giant Kaiser Permanente to change the way it treated disabled patients. And on Monday, Disability Rights Advocates celebrated another hard-won result.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 17, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 10 inches; 387 words Type of Material: Correction
Disability rights advocates--An article in Tuesday's California section about a law firm that represents the disabled did not explain that lawyer Sid Wolinsky only takes cases on a contingency basis. His fees are not paid by his clients but by defendants through judgments and settlements.

As part of the settlement of a lawsuit against the Educational Testing Service, America's leading producer of college entrance exams, a court-approved independent panel of experts announced sweeping changes in the handling of test results for the disabled.

Among them is eliminating the practice of "flagging," which refers to the practice of placing asterisks on the scores of disabled test-takers who have been given accommodations, such as extra exam time.

Paradis and Wolinsky are a contrast in styles. At 65, Wolinsky is bearded and rail-thin. Paradis, 43, is quieter, more buttoned-down.

For both, the testing lawsuit is part of the battle to uphold the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark legislation designed to help 43 million disabled Americans gain greater access to society.

Low-Key Strategy

The 10-lawyer firm tries to employ a consistent, low-key strategy.

Instead of going for multimillion-dollar, headline-grabbing judgments, it works behind the scenes for lasting change--helping to appoint blue-ribbon panels that suggest improvements in the lives of the disabled. Of 250 cases, only three have gone to trial.

"We want to change the way Americans think about the disabled," said Paradis, a Harvard Law School graduate who uses a wheelchair because of a genetic bone disorder. "For most people, they remain something to be ashamed about."

Twelve years after the disability act, many disabled people still struggle. Three of four who want to work can't find jobs. One-third live in poverty. The disabled are three times as likely to go without needed health care as hospitals fail to provide them with basic access, and insurance companies routinely exclude or limit their coverage.

Activists applaud the tactics of Disabled Rights Advocates.

"Big business has had enough time to understand how to comply with federal law regarding the disabled," said Marilyn Holle, an attorney for Protection and Advocacy, a federally funded nonprofit organization that works with the disabled. "And if they don't, lawyers like Larry Paradis and Sid Wolinsky will certainly remind them."

Critics say there's more than altruism at stake with Paradis and Wolinsky, whom they accuse of "over-lawyering" cases--filing "surprise attack" lawsuits to reap sizable attorneys fees.

"Their rates are excessive for their overhead," said Lawrence Ashe, an Atlanta attorney who lost a lawsuit Wolinsky filed against the California State Bar. "A small firm located over a discount shoe store in downtown Oakland charges the same rates as San Francisco's highest-priced firms?"

Proceeds for a Cause

Disability Rights Advocates supporters argue that the firm uses such proceeds to keep its cause going. And if Paradis and Wolinsky wanted to get rich, they would have stayed in corporate law, they say.

"People in social causes don't have to walk around barefoot with tattered clothes, driving 1968 Volkswagens," said J. Thomas Viall, executive director of the International Dyslexia Assn.

The firm's lead lawyers live in upscale neighborhoods in San Francisco's East Bay--Wolinsky in Berkeley and Paradis in nearby Kensington. While Wolinsky charges $450 an hour and sometimes more, neither lawyer would comment on their annual salaries.

Clement Glynn, who represented the Bay Area Rapid Transit in a Disability Rights Advocates suit, called Wolinsky one of the nation's elite trial lawyers.

"These guys aren't bounty hunters," he said. "Larry Paradis uses a wheelchair. He knows what cases matter, and he goes after causes with a social impact, not just those on which he knows he can collect."

Others chafe what they regard as an intent to win at any cost.

Attorney Greg Hurley helped defend a Disability Rights Advocates suit that will force the city of Sacramento to maintain its sidewalks so they can be used by people in wheelchairs. He said the decision will cost California cities more than $1 billion for upgrades.

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