The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce says it will seek to amend state and federal laws to head off what it describes as serial lawsuits demanding access for people with disabilities as a way to generate lucrative attorney fees.
The initiative comes in the wake of dozens of lawsuits filed by Minneapolis lawyer Paul Hansmeier against mostly small businesses in Marshall, Mankato, Rochester and the Twin Cities. The lawsuits are based on the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, and similar provisions of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
There’s no way to know how many businesses Hansmeier has sued because Minnesota, unlike most states, does not require a public filing to initiate a lawsuit. However, the Star Tribune has found 86 state and federal lawsuits filed publicly against a range of Minnesota businesses, including convenience stores, restaurants, health care providers, hotels, an antique store and a bowling alley.
Hansmeier filed seven lawsuits in July alone in federal court against five businesses in Columbia Heights and one each in Mankato and St. Paul Park.
“One business in Marshall was one degree off on its ramp [slope] and was sued,” said Ben Gerber, manager of energy and labor policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “That’s just ridiculous,” he said. “They made a good effort to comply.”
Gerber said the Chamber has spoken to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Al Franken’s office and to Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey about changing the laws. He said they’ve notified chambers of commerce in other states to be on the lookout for similar lawsuits.
Some lawyers have been criticized for filing cookie-cutter disability lawsuits around the country.
Currently, there’s no requirement for plaintiffs to notify a business before bringing a disability lawsuit. Because some fixes can be costly and complicated, the Chamber would like to give business owners up to 90 days to begin work on an alleged violation and up to a year to make a good-faith effort to complete it.
“That’s what California did” after a flurry of similar lawsuits there, Gerber said. “California also requires that if you file suit under their act, you have to register with their website — so they keep track of the people who are abusing it.”
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce sponsored a webinar Wednesday about Hansmeier’s lawsuits and what businesses could do to protect themselves. Martin Kappenman, a lawyer with Seaton, Peters and Revnew, said it can be “inordinately expensive” for business owners to fight such lawsuits, and even if they win, they rarely would recover their own legal fees.
Gerber said that the proposed legal amendments would remove Hansmeier’s “cash cow.”
David Fenley, legislative coordinator for the Minnesota Council on Disabilities, said he was familiar with the Chamber’s proposals but didn’t want to comment before seeing final language. “We could possibly support something like this, because Hansmeier’s lawsuits don’t necessarily remove barriers. It’s more about making money.”
A call to Hansmeier seeking comment Wednesday was disconnected, and he did not respond to subsequent messages left on his voice mail or e-mail.
Marshall goes on defense
Cal Brink, executive director of the Marshall Chamber of Commerce, said he knows of 14 lawsuits against Marshall businesses by Hansmeier and his clients. He said the Marshall Chamber now conducts audits to help businesses identify potential problems that can lead to a lawsuit.
“In many cases we made changes immediately,” Brink said. But that doesn’t mean the lawsuit goes away, he noted. Businesses still must defend the case or settle.
“Unfortunately, it’s much cheaper to settle a case out of court,” Brink said.
Kappenman said according to one report, settlements with Hansmeier’s clients have averaged $8,000. That’s not a huge amount, he said, but for a small business it can make the difference between surviving or not.
Hansmeier has had his own financial problems. He’s fighting hefty court sanctions from an earlier, failed strategy to sue thousands of people suspected of illegally downloading pornography.
Hansmeier filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection July 13, listing assets of about $1.1 million and liabilities of nearly $724,000. He reported that the law firm he uses for his disability cases — Class Justice — had $167,000 in gross income in the previous 12 months. Court filings show it’s currently bringing in $21,500 a month before expenses of $13,930.