By Dan Browning, Star Tribune December 15, 2014
The same lawyer had sued more than two dozen proprietors — including an 84-year-old widow who runs an antique store in Marshall — using a handful of disabled clients and then demanding out-of-court settlements.
The 61-year-old doctor felt he was doing “charity” work — treating Twin Cities refugees and other poor people in a small clinic he opened several years ago in the Phillips neighborhood.
Imagine his shock when a Minneapolis lawyer sued him for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a similar state law, over a front threshold that’s 1 inch too high.
Imagine his further shock when he discovered that the same lawyer had sued more than two dozen other Minnesota proprietors — including an 84-year-old widow who runs an antique store in Marshall — using a small handful of disabled clients and then demanding out-of-court settlements.
If the tactic sounds familiar it’s because the same lawyer, Paul Hansmeier, has been sanctioned by federal judges around the country for a similar strategy — trying to extract cash settlements from men who allegedly downloaded copyrighted pornography on the Internet. In those cases, Hansmeier and some associates have been ordered to pay more than $440,000 in sanctions, with one federal judge accusing them of “a form of moral turpitude unbecoming of an officer of the court.”
Now, the chief judge of Hennepin County District Court has ordered that a half dozen of Hansmeier’s disability cases be reassigned to a single judge to ensure that they’re handled uniformly.
“ … the serial nature of these cases … raises the specter of litigation abuse, and Mr. Hansmeier’s history reinforces this concern,” Chief Judge Peter Cahill wrote.
The Minnesota attorney general’s office recently referred complaints about Hansmeier to the board that disciplines attorneys for ethical violations, even as he continues to press for cash settlements with small business owners.
Hansmeier did not respond to several requests for comment.
One client, an unemployed computer technician named Eric A. Wong, is the plaintiff in 22 of the disability cases filed by Hansmeier.
In addition to Dr. Mohamud Afgarshe, Wong has sued coffee shops, restaurants, an art glass gallery and bars, alleging that he couldn’t patronize those places because of structural barriers. Wong has a rare genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and suffers frequent partial dislocations of the shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees, according to legal filings.
Afgarshe, who opened the Gargar Clinic & Urgent Care office on East Franklin Avenue in 2010, said Hansmeier demanded a $15,000 settlement on behalf of Wong.
“They came and they said, ‘If you want us to settle, you have to pay this,’ ” Afgarshe said. “I said, ‘No. We don’t think this is right.’ I never had any complaint from any of the disabled patients that come to the clinic.”
Patrick Noaker, a former public defender who’s representing Afgarshe, said the clinic complies fully with federal and state laws governing equal access for the disabled.
While it’s true that the front threshold is 1.5 inches high and would be a violation, Noaker said, it does not have to be repaired under the law because, while Afgarshe remodeled the clinic four years ago, no work was done to the outside of the building. Besides, the clinic has a fully compliant entrance at the rear of the building, he said.
“I wish that the required investigation would have been done in this case, because this case shouldn’t have been brought, and now we’re several thousand dollars into this thing,” Noaker said in an interview.
Afgarshe said the lawsuit stings personally as much as it pinches his clinic’s meager profits.
“It affects us psychologically because we kind of feel like we can’t really do business when somebody’s knocking on our door and looking around and trying to find any fault and costing you a lot of money to hire a lawyer,” he said. “It would discourage somebody from opening new businesses.”
Mary Lou Peterson, 84, worries that a lawsuit that Hansmeier filed in September will be the end of her longtime business. “I’m starting to lose my hair and get no sleep,” Peterson said.
She has operated Strawberry Fields/Orphanage Antiques in Marshall for the past 27 years. The business has fallen on hard times and brings in about $50 a day, according one legal filing.
The plaintiff in that case is Melanie Davis, 29, a student and disability rights activist from Mankato. She sued Peterson alleging that the store’s aisles were too narrow and cluttered for a person like her, who uses a wheelchair, and that an old jukebox (which has since been removed) was partly blocking the handicapped entrance to the store. Davis declined to comment, referring a reporter to Hansmeier, her attorney.
Davis, her friend Zach Hillesheim, 23, and Wong, 46, are all board members of a Minnesota nonprofit formed in July called Disability Support Alliance. Hansmeier’s law firm is the registered agent and he has represented each of them in lawsuits against small businesses.
In most cases, federal and state laws governing disability access don’t provide punitive relief. They can only be used to get property owners to correct shortcomings and to recover the plaintiff’s reasonable legal expenses. However, Hansmeier has been making claims under a Minnesota law that the property owners are committing a bias offense, which is a misdemeanor. In correspondence seeking a settlement with Peterson, he wrote that the law exposes defendants to a fine of $500 per incident, as well as punitive damages.
Peterson said Hansmeier asked for $2,500 to settle the case. She insists that her store complies with disability access laws, but she’s afraid she can’t afford the cost of litigation.
Jim Hillegass, a Minneapolis artist, property owner and owner of a software company, said he settled a lawsuit with Hansmeier for $8,000, though he didn’t believe he was in violation of disability access laws.
“It’s hopeless. The law is written in such a way that it allows attorneys to do this,” Hillegass said. “I settled because I didn’t want to spend any more time on it.”
Hansmeier did not invent the ADA strategy. Thousands of similar lawsuits have been filed across the country.
In New York, a federal judge awarded a plaintiff just $14.31 in a lawsuit there and refused to have the defendants pay his legal bills. Though he praised the intent of ADA access laws, he wrote that the conduct of the plaintiff’s lawyers “is indicative of a parasite disguised as a social engineer.”
Attorneys on both sides of such suits are quick to point out that ADA litigation often is legitimate and valuable.
Kirk Reilly, an attorney with Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis, has represented motel owners who were sued over failing to have swimming pool lifts for guests in wheelchairs. “Congress decided they needed pool lifts so I have no problem with that,” he said.
Reilly said disability rights laws are important tools to leverage equal rights. He said one can tell whether a lawsuit is legitimate or not by whether the complaint alleges something that would genuinely impair access.
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493