MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Dozens of small businesses in Minnesota are dealing with a legal headache that’s costing them thousands of dollars.
One lawyer is behind lawsuits targeting at least 70 businesses.
The suits claim discrimination against people with disabilities — things like tables that are too high, parking spaces that aren’t fully accessible and entrances that lack a ramp.
In some cases violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA’s Accessibility Guidelines or MHRA have been found.
But fixing the barriers isn’t enough.
The lawsuits ask not only for changes to be made, but they sue for monetary damages, alleging a misdemeanor for bias offenses.
The Bulldog Northeast is a bustling bar and restaurant in Minneapolis.
“We had someone send us a letter with a very vague, nondescript problem,” owner Amy Rowland said.
Rowland said she was then smacked with a discrimination lawsuit for alleged violations of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
“We’ve been open nine years,” Rowland said. “We’ve had lots of wheelchair patrons, and we’ve never had a problem.”
Business owners like Rowland, and their advocates, are questioning the motive behind the suits.
“It is supposed to make things right, but when you are compliant, you’re compliant,” Rowland said. “There are no ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ about it. And someone shouldn’t be able to just sue you willy-nilly for no reason, and that’s what this gentleman is taking advantage of.”
The lawsuits are filed by one attorney, Paul Hansmeier, on behalf of Disability Support Alliance, or its members. DSA is a non-profit he started that claims to exist to better the lives of people with disabilities.
Members feel the lawsuits command attention and evoke change.
“In the one year we’ve been active, there have been many businesses that have had to do renovations,” Zach Hillesheim said.
“I think people should be outraged there’s a demographic in society that can’t access society at the same level,” Melanie Davis said.
DSA members say they’re not targeting small businesses.
“We are going to businesses we have tried to truthfully use in our day-to-day lives,” Hillesheim said.
That’s how they say they pick who they sue. Members tell WCCO they are not paid and that the money from settlements go to their attorney and into a fund designed to develop programs and services for people living with disabilities.
They say programs have not started yet, with the exception of real-life access tests, where the group attempts to access businesses.
“If businesses don’t want to get sued they should just seek out the people who know what they’re doing,” Hillesheim said.
The Bulldog Northeast, like many others, settled. Members of DSA said the average settlement is $8,000.
“Our attorney’s fees were much more than the settlement,” Rowland said. “To pursue it further than we already have would be way more expensive, and we are successful, but not successful enough to fight it.”
Margot Imdieke Cross, the accessibility specialist with the Minnesota State Council on Disability, applauds the group’s purposed mission to remove barriers for people with disabilities, but she says that’s not what they’re doing.
“The fact is if this money isn’t going to barrier removal, and people are paying out large sums of money just to keep the lawyers happy, and the barriers aren’t being removed, then we’ve gained nothing in this whole,” she said.
So who wins?
“You know exactly who’s benefiting from this,” Cross said. “The person bringing the lawsuit.”
In 2013, a federal judge issued sanctions against Hansmeier for his role in “outmaneuvering the legal system” related to filing of hundreds of copyright lawsuits involving pornographic videos. The judge said he committed fraud and suffered “from a form of moral turpitude.”
Last year, Hennepin County assigned all the Disability Support Alliance member cases to a single judge.
The companion cases order raised this problem: “The serial nature of these cases brought by one plaintiff against a number of defendant businesses raises the specter of litigation abuse, and Mr. Hansmeier’s history reinforces this concern.”
More recently, local chambers of commerce began offering members legal resources to make sure they’re compliant before Hansmeier has a chance to strike.
The Marshall Chamber attempted to partner with DSA to help it reach its goals and set funds aside to help businesses become ADA compliant. It says DSA declined the help.
“It is our assumption that their motive for declining would be the fact that they would no longer get filtered any more money through these lawsuits,” said Brad Gruhot, the chamber’s membership coordinator.
Certified Accessibility Specialist Julee Quarve-Peterson works with businesses to become ADA compliant. She was hired by 17 of the businesses sued, and she believes there are more effective ways to bring corrective action.
“I think the law was never intended to be used in a way to punish businesses,” she said. “I don’t believe this action is helping the cause of accessibility, which is what it’s claiming it’s going to do. I think this is the hand-slapping, slap-in-the-face versus the helping hand of the businesses.”
And state advocates agree.
“What they’re doing is not illegal, [but] there may be some ethical issues,” Chase said.
The Attorney General’s Office said they have forwarded ethics complaints to the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board, the state board that disciplines lawyers for ethics violations.
The Bulldog Northeast also filed a complaint with the board.
Hansmeier refused WCCO’s request for an interview.