December 16, 2016 12:45 PM
A Minnesota attorney suing dozens of businesses is under investigation.
The state’s Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board confirmed it is reviewing complaints against Paul Hansmeier.
Hansmeier has filed lawsuits against at least 70 businesses in state and federal court since 2013. He has accused business owners of not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).
Hansmeier also represents the Disability Support Alliance, a nonprofit group formed last year that looks for non-compliant businesses. The group has five members, no office and has filed dozens of lawsuits in the last year.
“We've gone too long without the appropriate level of access and we're tired of it,” Melanie Davis said.
Davis, who has cerebral palsy, joined the group last October and says too many businesses do not have the proper doors, tables or ramps to accommodate her wheelchair. She says taking business owners to court holds them accountable.
“Why hasn't no one (sic) else made sure this is being done?” Davis asks.
A certified accessibility expert who helps businesses comply with ADA and MHRA regulations believes the lawsuits filed by Hansmeier are meant to solicit quick settlements instead of solutions.
Julee Quarve-Peterson has 19 clients who have been sued by Hansmeier.
“There are a lot of very, very, frustrated businesses that spend all their money on their lawyers to defend themselves and they may or may not make the corrective action,” Julee Quarve-Peterson said.
Many business owners never go to court. Hansmeier encourages them not to.
Jim Hillegas was sued in 2013 for not having proper wheelchair access to the old foundry building he owns in downtown Minneapolis. Hillegas says the first notification he received of a lawsuit included a settlement offer of $4,500.
“This isn't a real effort at compliance,” Jim Hillegas said. “This is an effort to make money.”
Hillegas eventually settled out of court for more money than it cost to construct the ramp.
“That tells you something isn't quite right,” Pat Noaker, an attorney who represented another business owner sued by Hansmeier, said about the quick settlement offers.
He believes Hansmeier is betting on quick settlements because offers appear “to be calculated to be just below what are common retainer fees.”
“All you have to do is drill down just a little and see that he is targeting small businesses,” Noaker said.
Businesses on Alert
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is working with state lawmakers and legal experts to help lawmakers comply with state and federal laws without facing huge litigation costs.
"The rapid increase of ADA lawsuits targeting a number of small Minnesota businesses is a serious concern,” Executive Director Ben Garber said.
The executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Marshall, Minnesota, says his staff tried working with the Disability Support Alliance to address compliance concerns in local businesses.
“We feel we have done everything possible to work positively with them and the result has only been more lawsuits,” Cal Brink said.
The chamber developed a program to reimburse business owners for a portion of their repair costs.
A District Judge in Hennepin County said Hansmeier’s lawsuits present “a common problem.”
“The serial nature of these cases brought by one or two plaintiffs against a number of defendant businesses raises the specter of litigation abuse, “Judge Ronald Abrams wrote in February, adding “Mr. Hansmeier’s history reinforces this concern.”
That history includes court sanctions. In 2013, a federal judge in California accused Hansmeier of running a copyright infringement scheme in which he sued people for illegally downloading a single pornographic video.
Judge Otis D. Wright said Hansmeier and his partners were “attorneys with shattered law practices” who were “seeking easy money” and deceived the court to do so.
Hansmeier declined an interview but did say his past has nothing to do with the ADA lawsuits.
Melanie Davis and the Disability Support Alliance agreed, saying their attorney’s reputation is not a concern.
“I think we state something different and (are) doing something that needs to be done,” Davis said.