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New Minnesota law targets what critics call ‘excessive’ ADA lawsuits

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May 31, 2016

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Minnesota law targets ‘excessive’ ADA lawsuits

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Source Duluth News Tribune

MANKATO, Minn. — When Shelly Bartlett opened her Mankato salon, organic market and deli, she didn’t limit her customer base, she said.

She made sure INdiGO Organic’s seating was mobile, ordered specialty massage tables and personally measured signs and hand rails so people will disabilities could comfortably visit her business. Her work paid off — one of her regular customers is a disabled man who travels 40 minutes to get his hair cut, she said. That’s why why Bartlett was so surprised to be sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act for what seemed to her to be minor, technical problems.

But she felt forced to settle the case for a few thousand dollars to avoid the cost of a lawsuit.

She’s not alone.

Dozens of Minnesota business owners have been targeted in what critics call “drive-by lawsuits” in which they are sued for ADA violations and pressured to opt for cash settlements. The problem is more common in other states, but has become enough of a concern in the past two years to prompt action from the Minnesota Legislature.

This year, lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton approved a law largely designed to curtail the tactics of one man: Minneapolis attorney Paul Hansmeier. He has filed more than 160 cases in state and federal courts over the past three years. Fewer than 10 cases had been filed annually in the five years before Hansmeier’s first ADA case, said Beth Kadoun, a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce vice president.

Misconduct?

Business groups and others claim Hansmeier is a bad actor who targets minute infractions of the federal ADA law and Minnesota Human Rights Act to line his pockets by extracting costs for attorney’s fees.

He is being investigated in Minnesota for ethics violations unrelated to the ADA lawsuits and was previously fined by a California district court for what the district judge called “brazen misconduct and relentless fraud.” Minnesota judges have also raised the specter of lawsuit abuse over the slew of ADA cases.

“Our concern is that these lawsuits give the ADA a bad name,” said David Fenley, the legislative coordinator with the Minnesota State Council on Disability. “They further the divide between contractors, businesses and the disability community.”

William Rust, a White Bear Lake architect and contractor sued by Hansmeier, called the attorney’s tactics “bullying” and said he was pressured to take a $3,000 settlement to avoid steeper fees.

Rust was sued for a few inches’ difference between the ground and the entrance of a building he has owned since 1983, Rust said. While he added a portable ramp within a couple weeks of hearing from Hansmeier, Rust refused to settle.

“I just feel strongly that this guy needs to be stopped,” Rust said.

Awarness, access

Hansmeier says his critics have it all wrong. He only makes enough through disability suits to “keep the lights on” in his Minneapolis law firm. He believes he is increasing access for the disabled — and sending a message to businesses that aren’t well-designed to allow all customers what they need.

“Most of my clients are people who very actively tried to get voluntary compliance … for years,” Hansmeier said. “No one paid attention to them … It’s not until they started bringing lawsuits that businesses started whipping themselves into shape.”

Even Hansmeier’s critics agree that his suits have sparked a statewide conversation about accessibility, but they’re still suspicious.

Disability advocates say sometimes lawsuits are exactly what’s needed to ensure people with disabilities get equal access — just not the way Hansmeier does it.

“People discriminate against African Americans because they want to, they’re racist. The reason they discriminate against people with disabilities is because we’re invisible. I want to make us visible,” said David Ketroser, a lawyer and neurologist who uses a wheelchair. Ketroser also sues businesses for ADA violations and says even small changes can make a big difference.

At the Capitol

A bill, drafted with bipartisan support in the Minnesota Legislature, was signed into law this May to prevent the slew of lawsuits over buildings’ accessibility.

The bill provides additional defenses for businesses being sued for ADA violations and lays out what should be included in letters sent to businesses before a lawsuit begins. Whoever is sending the letter must include the exact violation and can’t demand money.

“We’re very pleased with it. It’s going to be another tool in our belt,” Fenley said. “These demand letters just inform businesses of what they’ve got to be doing. You didn’t know, now you do, it’s time to fix it and move on. If we can do it without filing lawsuits, that’s great. But if we need to file, then we will.”

House bill sponsor Dennis Smith, R-Maple Grove, said he is pleased with the compromise signed into law. But he agrees with others that the issue is not settled.

“We’re really disappointed in the version that was passed,” said Mike Hickey of the National Federation of Independent Business. “We’re going to be back because these lawsuits are going to continue.”

California has dealt with the issue as well.

The state is home to about 12 percent of the country’s disabled population, but 40 percent of its ADA lawsuits. A 2015 California law tracks people who frequently file ADA suits and charges them an additional court filing fee of $1,000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The state has other laws designed to curb such suits as well.

Regardless of what happens in state law, businesses should be mindful of the needs of disabled people, said the disability council’s Fenley. Some of those needs require only simple fixes. Business owners don’t necessarily need to move into new buildings or overhaul existing facilities to be inviting to disabled customers.

“If you have a second story and it’s going to cost $100,000 to put elevator in, of course (the ADA)’s not going to ask small businesses to do that,” Fenley said. “Maybe you have catalog with stuff you sell on second floor … There are other more creative ways to make your businesses accessible.”



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