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Sometimes 75 cents is all it takes to get an attorney in a fighting mood. For years, Michael Powers, a partner with the 170-attorney Phillips Lytle in Buffalo, N.Y., said that he had been offended by the toll booth on I-190, which charged 75 cents to motorists entering the city. When a local developer and businessman, Carl Paladino, came to him and asked him if there was a legal basis to challenge the toll booths, Powers took the case. And the firm decided to cover 75 % of the expenses on behalf of the community. Powers began his research by looking for an equal protection argument, since I-190 was the only roadway that was tolled, he said. What he found was a 38-year-old statute-the 1968 Niagara Toll Booth Removal Act-which he couldn’t believe no one had ever tried to enforce. The act mandated that the toll booths on I-190 be removed in 1996, after federal funding came through. “When I found it, I did a double take,” Powers said. “I just thought how could people have not known this statute is on the books? And then I knew we were going to win the case.” The statute made the lawsuit “bullet-proof,” according to Paladino, who was listed as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He claims that once the lawsuit was set in motion, the state government couldn’t look the other way anymore. Eight months later… After the firm filed suit against the New York State Thruway challenging the existence of toll booths on Interstate-190, the community and politicians rallied behind the cause to stop the toll, Powers said. On Oct. 30, eight months after the suit was filed, and three months after a New York State Supreme Court judge denied the New York State Thruway’s motion to dismiss, the toll booths shut down. Members of the New York State Thruway Authority, who are appointed by governor, voted to remove the toll booth that morning. “The message is that if you get the right people behind an effort that is good for the community and form a coalition, you can get things done that people said could never be,” Powers said. The firm has large commercial, corporate, family wealth planning, labor, employment and immigration, and trial practice groups. Each group is made up of smaller practice areas so all general client needs can be met by the firm. And they plan to continue taking similar cases on behalf of the community in the future, Powers said. “It’s exactly the reason I became a lawyer, I wanted to make a difference in the community,” he said. “Instead of public office, I felt I could accomplish more in the private sector by working with those in the public sector.” Powers, with partners Alan Bozer and Preston Zarlock, approached the case with a two-prong strategy: to apply legal pressure on the issue through the lawsuit, and to gain the public’s attention and put political pressure on the state legislature. As for political pressure, both New York State gubernatorial candidates announced that they would tear down the toll booths if elected, said Powers. Congressman Brian Higgins threatened to withhold federal funding, and the New York State Assembly passed a bill to remove the toll booth, he said. “This has been in discussion since the 1960′s, if it wasn’t for the lawsuit, the toll booths would still be collecting today,” said Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, a co-plaintiff in the case. “The lawsuit received considerable attention and was a real impetus in the process.” Some political leaders disagree that the lawsuit served as a catalyst. Craig J. Miller, a communications director for State Senator Dale M. Volker, said that they had been working to solve the problem for the past two years and finally were able to push it through. But Congressman Higgins recognizes that the lawsuit provided a significant factual basis for which the public could hold on to. “There were a lot of things going on at the same time, and we all had a common objective,” he said. “The lawsuit was able to show that the Thruway Authority was full of it.” Calls for comment to the New York State Thruway Authority were not returned in time for publication.

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