Panic Street Lawyer: Waiting for signs

Sunday, 15 September 2013 05:52 AM Written by  Jay Hornack

20130915 curvesaheadsign photocom88015879 150Yes, the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are now guaranteed to end their first season with more wins than losses since 1992. But, no, this week’s PSL is not about baseball.

The signs I wait for weekly are not a set of movements or gestures conveying batting instructions; rather, I wait for a pattern of interactions or observations that give me something about which to write. Hopefully my patience pays off.

This week, one of my clients asked at the end of her case if she could ask me a question. She wanted to know how I had decided to practice in the area of disabilities law instead of medical malpractice. I answered my client – exactly the same age as the Americans with Disabilities Act -- by saying that there were professional and personal reasons for how that happened.

Then, two days later, I participated in a Board of Directors committee meeting that has been assigned to search for a new Disability Right Network of Pennsylvania chief executive officer. Finally, my next day’s Pittsburgh Legal Journal included a notice for Tuesday’s Allegheny County Bar Association meeting of those interested in forming a Committee on Issues Affecting People with Disabilities. I concluded that this was all a sign that I should write a column on issues that attorneys, law students, and other legal professionals should be aware of under Title I (employment), Title II (public services) and Title III (public accommodations) of the ADA.

But this week also produced a very different pattern of disability-related new stories, from unlikely sources:

20130915 GAOlogo 150-- National Public Radio News posted on Twitter – at sundown on Yom Kippur, no less – an article entitled “Social Security Wrongfully Paid $1.3 Billion in Disability.” The underlying article, which was based on an AP story, said that the Government Accountability Office estimated that 36,000 individuals were both paid for employment and paid Social Security disability benefits from December 2011 to January 2013. However, the GAO used questionable methodology in arriving at its $1.3 billion estimate, and the underlying article pointed out that even that figure represented less than 1% of both beneficiaries and disability payments made during that time frame. Unforgivable headline, NPR News.

--Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman must have thought he was shooting fish in a barrel when he wrote that the state of Iowa’s issuance of gun permits to the blind was carrying its state motto to “ridiculous extremes.” But the columnist seems to have been caught in the same absolutist trap talking about the ADA that some gun rights advocates are caught in talking about the Second Amendment. The ADA literally requires an individual with a disability to meet “essential eligibility requirements for … the participation in programs or activities provided by a public entity,” and therefore a state can defend the denial of a permit to a blind applicant on the basis that he or she is not “qualified.” Similarly, Justice Scalia’s opinion finding an individual right to own a firearm (District of Columbia v. Heller) states that the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.

20130915wap servicedogtexas 150In June Texas adopted a law permitting service animals in public spaces such as restaurants. (Eric Gay/Associated Press) -- Public accommodations (which include law offices) are generally required to modify policies, practices, and procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability. This week NPR News ran a story on service animals – not one focusing on all the task these animals perform for the benefit of the disabled but, instead, one talking about “four-legged imposters” that people try to pass off (illegally in California) as service animals.

So instead of writing this week about ways in which people in the legal profession can overcome barriers and succeed, I find myself defending persons with disabilities from accusations that they are dishonest, dangerous, and/or deceptive.

I could still write up suggested agenda items for that ACBA committee formation meeting, but I worry that my ideas will sound like they are coming from out of left field.

(Top image: Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

The Panic Street Lawyer is a personal opinion column by attorney Jay Hornack. Contact him right here at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow Jay on Twitter: @panicstlawyer

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