Small businesses sued by controversial lawyer over Americans with Disabilities Act

More than a hundred small businesses across Minnesota have found themselves part of an expensive club, none of them asked to join.  They have been sued by a Twin Cities group for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires businesses to be handicapped accessible.

In Marshall, Minn., 15 local business owners were slapped with lawsuits, sometimes over small violations like a wheelchair ramp too steep by one degree.  

At the Dairy Queen, a new owner was remodeling and adding handicapped accessible tables, but not in enough time. At Mike’s Café, the bathrooms are too small by today’s standards. 

Mary Lou Peterson owns antique shop on Main Street and was sued because a juke box was blocking the entrance.

"I'm 85. Here I am, just trying to stay in business," Peterson said.

Every one of the businesses settled out of court. Cal Brink of the Marshall Chamber of Commerce said the motive in bringing the lawsuits is to get businesses to settle.

"[the case] never goes to court. The whole goal is to settle for a nominal amount $2,000 to $10,000 and it all goes away," Brink said.

All the lawsuits are filed by the same group, the Disability Support Alliance.  The group has recently filed half-dozen federal lawsuits against strip malls and businesses in Burnsville for having inadequate handicapped parking.  It also sued a half dozen shops along Grand Avenue in St. Paul and some businesses in the Warehouse District in Minneapolis.

Business owners in White Bear Lake also said they are getting sued. 

"It's really not about access.  What they will do, is not get out of the car and say,’ I can't get in there.  I can't get in there, I can't get in there’. And then, they will sue," Attorney Susan Minsberg said.

Altogether, the Disability Support Alliance has filed more than 100 nearly identical lawsuits in both state and federal court. But, members told the Fox 9 Investigators they are not done.

"The lawsuits command attention, that's what it does," Melanie Davis, a member of the Disability Support Alliance, said of the group.

Several of them sat down with Fox 9 to tell their stories.

"How horrible are we to ask for curb cuts so we aren't stuck in the snow, or stuck inside, depressed because we can't leave," Zach Hillesheim said.

"Here we go again, can't go to the bathroom, have to cut my evening short with my friends, and go home to where I know I can go to the bathroom," Scott Smith added.

So why don't they just tell business owners there is an issue and they have to comply with the ADA? 

"If I have to keep telling you it’s not acceptable," Davis said. "I don't want to go there. It's exhausting."

Their attorney is Paul Hansmeier who was already notorious in the legal world as a copyright troll. He was partner in a firm called Prenda Law that orchestrated a scheme where it placed pornographic videos on file sharing sites, then sent letters to people who downloaded them threatening lawsuits or public exposure. Most settled and Hansmeier reportedly made millions.  That is, until federal judges in Minnesota, Illinois and California shut the operation down.

Hansmeier then set up the Disability Support Alliance as a nonprofit with Eric Wong, who in a deposition admits that Hansmeier, or his associates, would drive him around looking for businesses to sue.

Hansmeier's life is a paradox. He lives in a million dollar condo on the 31st floor of the Carlyle in Minneapolis.  But down the street, at the federal courthouse, he is in bankruptcy. He has taken only one case to trial and won, racking up more than $70,000 in attorney fees in the process.

The Fox 9 Investigators caught up with Hansmeier after a recent court hearing and he said he couldn't comment on pending litigation but added "It's important that people follow the law, and the defendants we've sued have violated the law in ways that are harmful to my clients' life experiences."

Fox 9 asked Hansmeier whether people think he's untrustworthy, to which he replied, "I can appreciate why some people feel that way given the orders out. I would tell people look at what we're doing now, and if you want to focus on the past fine, but it's not going to be a good idea for the case that gets brought."

The State Council on Disability believes the lawsuits are a wake-up call.  It's now working with business groups on state legislation that would require a written notice before a lawsuit is filed giving business owners time to fix issues.

"I'm not interested in making attorney's rich," Margot Imdieke-Cross Cross from the Minnesota Council on Disability said. "By the time [small businesses] get done paying the attorney fees, they don't have the resources to remove the barrier and that's a bad thing,"

The Fox 9 Investigators have learned Hansmeier is under investigation by the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.