New Minn. law targets what critics call ‘excessive’ ADA lawsuits

Published 8:05 am Tuesday, May 31, 2016

By Tory Cooney

St. Paul Pioneer Press

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

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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.

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.