December 10, 2016 08:55 PM
A state law that was supposed to protect businesses and increase access for people with disabilities is failing to deter what some call “drive-by lawsuits” that demand quick settlements from small business owners.
Lawmakers tried to limit the number of disability access lawsuits earlier this year, but language that would have required attorneys to notify business owners and provide a reasonable amount of time to comply with disability laws was stripped from the final bill.
Rep. Dennis Smith (R-Maple Grove), who drafted the House version of the bill that included notification requirements, says it would have increased access and protected businesses. He says the current law only encourages attorneys to notify businesses.
“(Attorneys) are doing these drive-by lawsuits, these drive-by demand letters. They’re not interested in increasing access for people who are disabled,” Smith said. “They just want a few quick dollars and then they’re on their way.”
Hundreds of small businesses across the state have been sued in recent years for not complying with the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The complaints often include legitimate compliance issues but also demands for quick settlements.
Even advocates working to improve access for people with disabilities have been critical of the legal strategy, saying it does more harm than good. Some businesses owners have chosen to pay the settlement demands to avoid huge legal fees even though they felt their buildings were in compliance.
Attorney Paul Hansmeier, who had his license suspended earlier this year for his previous involvement in a copyright scheme involving pornographic videos, often sought quick settlements on behalf of non-profit groups like the Disability Support Alliance.
Melanie Davis, a member of the non-profit group who suffers from cerebral paulsy, told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in 2015 that Hansmeier helped the group hold businesses accountable.
But in Bankruptcy Court records, Hansmeier is accused of using the non-profit as an “alter ego” to line his own pockets.
Because of the suspension, Hansmeier can no longer file disability lawsuits. However, his wife, Padraigin Browne, seems to have taken over the family business.
Browne has filed dozens of lawsuits against small businesses this year. Browne and Hansmeier declined repeated interview requests for this story.
Wild Bill’s Bar and Restaurant was sued in August after the state law had been passed for not having wide enough parking spaces.
“There was no notification to my client,” said Ryan Conners, who represents the restaurant’s parent group.
He says the restaurant has already brought its parking spaces into compliance but that won’t stop attorneys like Browne from seeking settlements or filing lawsuits.
“These are legitimate cases right now in the way the law is written,” Conners said. “It is essentially a loophole.”
And Conners isn’t sure additional changes to the state law will make a difference either since attorneys like Browne and Hansmeier can also file complaints without notifying businesses in federal court under the ADA.
“Minnesota can't do anything; they can't legislate for the federal government,” he added.