Ricardo Hernandez Espinoza thought he was safe after rioters angry over George Floyd’s killing burned three adjacent businesses but spared his La Michoacana Purépecha ice cream shop on Lake Street in Minneapolis.
Then came the looters, who at 2 a.m. on May 29 smashed in his shop door and entered. Finding Espinoza inside, they bolted.
Espinoza was still in a quandary. The electricity to his shop was out for a week. Even after the power returned, his landlord’s insurance company wouldn’t let him reopen his shop. He had 10 freezers of inventory wasting away, 21 workers who still needed their jobs and customers his family depended on.
The insurer “actually wanted me to stay closed and I could not afford that,” said Espinoza, who used his life savings as a former printing-press operator to open the shop two years ago.
Needing help fast, Espinoza turned to a legal clinic opened earlier this month by Fredrikson & Byron (F&B) to offer free legal help to businesses damaged by riots along Lake Street, University Avenue, the North Side and elsewhere in the Twin Cities.
F&B’s new legal clinic hopes to assist business owners such as Espinoza, who are struggling with insurance claims, tenant/landlord issues, and the loss of buildings, equipment, lease agreements, contracts and tax records destroyed during riots that damaged more than 500 Twin Cities businesses in less than a week.
F&B attorneys Kiel McElveen and Levi Smith, who both live not far from the police’s gutted Third Precinct building on Lake Street, said they had to find some way to help their neighbors.
After surveying the damage in their neighborhoods, they reached out to the F&B partners to see what could be done.
“Our neighborhood really felt the riots. Businesses were impacted to a really extreme degree. So, this is a personal thing for us,” Smith said. “People have suffered. If you drive down Lake Street you could tell that people are hurting. Our hope is that we can help everyone who needs help and doesn’t have the resources to pay for legal help.”
Dan Mott, an F&B business attorney, noted that many area businesses don’t know what to do. “Their livelihood is gone. They have leases for buildings that were burned to the ground. The property no longer exists,” he said.
Near Espinoza’s ice cream shop, the Shell gas station across the street, the O’Reilly’s Auto Parts store that’s kitty corner, and the building next door are all gone, Espinoza said. He feels lucky to have escaped with just a bashed door and thousands of dollars in lost ice cream.
Losses are so extensive in the area that they have spurred toiletry and food-donation drives and now, free legal aid from F&B and a new partnership between Legal Corps and the Volunteer Lawyers Network. The two groups now offer riot victims free legal counseling and construction law services via a hotline (612-752-6687) and the help of hundreds of volunteer lawyers from various Twin Cities firms.
F&B attorneys said they want to be sure insurance firms don’t lowball property-damage estimates and that banks work with victims to extend equipment or building loan payments.
“That gives you additional time to get back on your feet so you don’t have to go into default on their loan,” said Mott, who is taking clients’ initial information before referring them to specialists inside the law firm. “Those are things we can help work out.”
Clients needing help can reach the legal clinic in three ways:
F&B operates a new walk-in clinic inside the Graves Foundation office that sits across the hall from the Midtown Global Market on Lake Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis.
Mott and other attorneys wearing masks to guard against COVID-19 are meeting with residents on Tuesdays 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Thursdays 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and plan daily sessions from Monday through Thursday during the week of June 29.
Businesses needing help can also call 612.492.8078 to leave a message in English or Spanish that will be returned in a day. Or they can complete an intake form online at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pam Wandzel, F&B director of pro bono and community service, said prospective clients learn about the new legal help from F&B’s nonprofit partners such as Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), Meda, Lake Street Council, the Northside Economic Opportunity Network and others helping business owners assess the damage, get insurance, retrace burned business documents and hopefully rebuild.
It was the Neighborhood Development Center that referred Espinoza to Wandzel at F&B.
The help came at a critical time, Espinoza said. “Many little businesses don’t have the resources for an attorney or don’t have insurance or know how to make sure they get a fair settlement. So these guys [from F&B] came in and helped us out a lot.”
After the insurer for Espinoza’s landlord learned he had an attorney, it let La Michoacana Purépecha reopen. But his inventory loss — thousands of pounds of handmade specialty ice cream and fruit-sicles — hit just as the store was to open a second location in St. Paul.
“I was concerned. But Pam [Wandzel] and her team probably spent 20 hours on my case,” reviewing leases, contracts and insurance coverage before helping him fill out a complete insurance claim, Espinoza said. “They made sure that we were good to go.”
Days later, eight other weary business owners walked into F&B’s pop-up legal clinic inside the Midtown Global Market building.
One property owner needed help finding a structural engineer because his building was badly damaged by fire but his insurer insists it is not a total loss.
A business owner with an established hair-braiding service needed help because her insurance company offered a very low settlement. In another case, an immigrant with a thriving restaurant on Lake Street that supported his family for decades suddenly had nothing but ashes. Among the losses: business records needed to solve an issue with the IRS. “It breaks my heart,” said Wandzel, who is referring each client to the proper attorney or community-assistance group.
Some clients are traumatized.
Overnight, “your revenue stream is gone whether it’s COVID-19 or because your building has been burned down,” said F&B’s Mott. “If ever there were victims here, these are the folks. They did nothing wrong but happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are small businesses just trying to support their families with these businesses and they have lost it all.”
Given the uncertainly, F&B said it will keep the clinic running for as long as people need help.
“Fredrikson & Byron is a community of dedicated and compassionate lawyers and staff who contribute in concrete ways to assist those in need,” said President John Koneck. “We stand together with our neighbors.”