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Leaders in the Law 2009 - Feature Story
Michigan Lawyers Weekly
By Megan Pennefather
March 16, 2009
The scene is Northwestern University in the late 1990's, and a young law student is feeling overwhelmed.
Visually impaired since birth, this student is finding his normally ironclad strength tested by the challenges of law school and his disability.
So he takes a moment to pray.
His prayer is simple, yet powerful: "If you give me the opportunity to get through law school, then I'll dedicate my life to fighting for people with special needs."
The law student gets through school and earns his law degree in 1999. Less than a decade later, he makes good on that spiritual promise as a one-man crusader for those with disabilities and special needs.
That is only one part in the story of Richard Bernstein, a pro bono attorney at his father's firm, the Bernstein Law Firm in Farmington Hills.
"I prayed every day that I'd get through it," Bernstein, 35, said. "I'm basically following through on this promise."
Last year, Bernstein settled a two-year battle with the University of Michigan on behalf of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. In addition to being his most high-profile case to date, it is also the one that proved most challenging for him personally and professionally.
The university's $226 million renovation of Michigan Stadium failed to meet requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The stadium, renowned for its 107,000 seats, had fewer than 100 for disabled fans, and failed to provide adequate restroom, parking and concession accommodations.
The university argued that because the construction was technically a repair and not a renovation, it didn't have to adhere to ADA guidelines.
There was a lot at stake in this case, Bernstein said. He had earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, and he teaches a political science course there. In other words, he was suing not only his alma mater, but his employer as well.
But ultimately, the case had bigger implications for Bernstein.
"This case was not about seats at a stadium," he said. "This case would ultimately define building codes for the ADA for every commercial structure in the United States."
The U.S. Department of Justice assisted in the suit, which was settled in March 2008. It required the university to add 329 wheelchair seats throughout the stadium by 2010, as well as 135 accessible seats at the club level. In addition, concession stands and restrooms were remodeled for accessibility.
When the work is complete, Michigan Stadium "will be the most ADA-compliant stadium in the United States," Bernstein said. The case "set the guidelines for standards of alterations and repairs."
Bernstein's perseverance is helped along by his commitment to athletics. He has completed 10 marathons and one Ironman triathlon, feats, he said, that are crucial to his continued success as an attorney.
"Every one of my cases is analogous to an Ironman or marathon," he said. "You have to get it done. You have no choice but to do that. ... It gives you the gift of perspective."
His 12-hour workdays also include his teaching, his position as chair of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, and his involvement with nonprofit organizations that serve disabled youth.
"I think it's so important that people understand disability rights is civil rights," he said. "Awareness creates understanding."
He recently filed suit against the city of Green Bay, Wis., which had planned to install traffic roundabouts that Bernstein alleges are dangerous to those with physical disabilities.
After the suit was filed, Green Bay backed down and will not use the roundabouts.
The case is strikingly similar to the one he filed against the Road Commission for Oakland County, which also sought to install traffic roundabouts. Bernstein successfully argued the roundabouts were an ADA violation, and the county agreed to add special safety signals to aid disabled pedestrians.
Each case, he said, is a "David vs. Goliath; you're always going up against people who have more resources."
But for Bernstein, it has never been about winning or losing. It is been about holding true to his promise and being an advocate for those with disabilities and special needs.
He is reminded of an old saying he first heard from his rabbi: "You change one person's life, you change the world."
And he's trying to do that, one case at a time.
"The mission," he said, "is just to create a better life for people."
Visually Impaired Athlete Sues USA Triathlon
Richard Bernstein Challenges ABA for Discrimination Against Blind Law Students
Michigan Sports Hall of Fame Honors Richard Bernstein with Courage Award
Attorney Richard Bernstein Named Leader in the Law by Michigan Lawyers Weekly
Victory! Disabled Win Access to U-M Stadium