A young Minneapolis attorney embroiled in controversial copyright cases on behalf of some porn producers has another legal specialty: class-action lawsuits in which his wife, a friend and a law clerk serve as his clients.
In one case, Paul Hansmeier filed a lawsuit over Groupon deals, using his wife as the plaintiff. In another, he sued several online travel companies on behalf of a friend who is a personal trainer.
Hansmeier, 31, left the Minneapolis law firm of Stoel Rives in 2010 and branched out on his own. He partnered with John L. Steele, a former classmate from the University of Minnesota Law School, to pursue people who allegedly violate copyright laws by sharing pornography on the Internet. That enterprise, known as "copyright trolling," has come under the scrutiny of federal judges in Florida and California who questioned whether certain plaintiffs were actually shills for the attorneys themselves. The judges, citing concerns of a "possible fraud on the court," are considering sanctions.
The plaintiffs have since been dismissing most of their pending lawsuits nationwide.
Hansmeier worked mostly behind the scenes on the copyright cases. Court records show that he has been listed as an "attorney of record" in six of the cases in Minnesota, Illinois and California. But he's been involved in the hiring of local counsel and other administrative functions in an unknown number of other cases.
Hansmeier's foray into the class-action arena came last summer in a California case in which he represented his wife, Minneapolis intellectual property attorney Padraigin Browne. According to the lawsuit, Browne, 30, "spent valuable money on Groupon vouchers at a time when she was a recent graduate, heavily in debt and with little discretionary income." She paid $5 for a $10 voucher at the Pumphouse Creamery in Minneapolis, and $25 for $50 in purchases at GAP clothing stores. The coupons expired before she could use them.
Brett Gibbs, an attorney Hansmeier knew from law school who's deeply involved in the copyright cases, filed an objection to a pending federal class-action settlement on Browne's behalf, then Hansmeier himself represented Browne at a September hearing in the case. The court approved the settlement over Browne's objections in December, but she has appealed to the 9th Circuit.
Hansmeier's second appearance in a class-action case was Oct. 9, the same day he formed a new company called the Class Action Justice Institute in Minneapolis. In that case, Hansmeier sued several online travel companies and major hotel chains on behalf of his friend Allan Mooney, a 34-year-old personal trainer.
Mooney said in a recent interview that he had helped launch Hansmeier into his copyright trolling enterprise by introducing him to some pornography producers. He said that last fall Hansmeier asked him if he'd used any online booking agencies and hotels.
"He mentioned they were involved in some type of federal lawsuits; they were doing some type of price fixing," Mooney said. He said he turned over his travel records to Hansmeier, who filed an antitrust suit against the firms on behalf of Mooney and unknown others.
The case didn't last long. Defense attorneys described it in a court filing as a cut-and-paste job from other class-action lawsuits. Hansmeier dismissed the lawsuit a week later. He declined to comment on the case.
Hansmeier said there's nothing wrong with representing his wife and business associates in lawsuits, and that he had no obligation to disclose his relationships with clients. Asked if he has represented any strangers, Hansmeier said he hasn't been doing class-actions for very long.
"You generally start with people that are in your, shall we say, inner circle or whatever," Hansmeier said. "Now, I would hope ... that as time goes on that I expand the circle, that I gain some credibility and some experience and a reputation for successfully prosecuting these style of cases."
Meanwhile, he filed a lawsuit against the online merchandising firm LivingSocial on behalf of his law clerk, Nathan Wersal, who opted out of a class-action settlement in a case pending in Washington, D.C. According to the lawsuit, Wersal paid $15 for $30 worth of food and drink at Kafe 421 in Minneapolis. The voucher expired last February before it could be used.
Lawyers for LivingSocial are arguing for dismissal. They said in a recent filing that although the promotional value of $15 expired after a year, the original purchase price of $15 never expired. And Wersal's complaint doesn't allege that he tried to redeem the coupon, which is required, they said.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank has scheduled a hearing on the motion for May 23.
Last month Hansmeier returned to Hennepin County court on behalf of Mooney. This time, Mooney alleges that he bought food marketed as "all natural" by Frito-Lay North America and PepsiCo., only to learn that the products actually contain ingredients from genetically modified organisms. The defendants removed the case to federal court on Thursday, describing it as a "copycat" of 11 other cases filed in the past 18 months.