The clients behind recent costly disability lawsuits against Rochester businesses say the money they collect will create programs to help disabled people.
"We all suffer with access issues," said Melanie Davis, a student from Jackson, Minn. "The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has been effect for many years. We've gotten tired of not having the same level of access everybody else has,"
Davis, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, is one of four board members of the Minnesota-based Disability Support Alliance. She, a long with other alliance members, filed at least eight lawsuits in the last two months against Rochester businesses over ADA violations. The non-profit Disability Support Alliance was formed on July 3, 2014.
Davis and her companions recently stayed in Rochester for about week. When asked why they were here, she replied, "We travel. There were various reasons for being in Rochester, like medical things. We like touring and stuff like that."
Surprised by lawsuits
Many of the local businesses, such as Bilotti's Pizzeria and Hillcrest Shopping Center, were surprised by the lawsuits. Neither Davis nor any of her companions made complaints directly to the businesses during their visit to Rochester.
The DSA's Minneapolis attorney, Paul Hansmeier, approaches businesses about settling the lawsuits for amounts, like $5,000. That has led some of the businesses to wonder if the suits are more about making money than resolving accessibility issues.
"These people (from the DSA) had no intention of supporting my business when they drove in here. They came in here with every intention of getting rich quick," said Bilotti's owner Karla Sperry, who is addressing the problem with signage for her handicapped parking spots.
Davis disputes that claim. She said none of the board members receive salaries or part of the settlements. However, they did receive travel expenses to attend their board meetings, which occur every three months. She said DSA board members are mostly supported by payments from Social Security.
"We're getting paid for damages, and we donate the money back into the DSA. That's basically how it works," she explained.
The money from the settlements goes into a fund to be used by the DSA to develop programs to help disabled people in Minnesota, Davis said.
"All of those (programs) are in the works. Nothing is working yet at the moment," she said when asked about the support programs.
Hansmeier, who works for law firm Class Justice, handles all of DSA's lawsuits and does collect a portion of the settlements, she said.
"It's not a salary, but he gets a portion from each case," Davis said. "Paul receives his own salary from his law firm, which is a contract which we developed between our organizations."
When asked what percentage of each settlement that Hansmeier collects, she declined to answer.
Hansmeier has filed a large number of this type of lawsuit throughout the state, including in Marshall and Mankato. Before pursuing ADA cases, he was well known for suits against Internet users, charging they had illegally downloaded copyrighted pornography. A federal judge ordered Hansmeier and others to pay sanctions of more than $400,000 related to that practice. Prenda Law, the firm Hansmeier worked with on the porn cases, has been dissolved.
He has been quoted in the media saying, "We consider ourselves to be an advocacy association more than we consider ourselves a law firm. With the porn reputation, I wanted to shift my focus and focus on something more positive."
In 2013, Hansmeier began filing a number of ADA-related cases for a disabled Minneapolis client named Eric A Wong. In a deposition for one of the cases, Wong testified that Hansmeier's brother, Peter Hansmeier, and others working with Hansmeier would take him to businesses to see if he could access them.
Hennepin County District Court Chief Judge Peter Cahill flagged six of the cases at the end of 2013 and ordered them all assigned to one judge to make sure they were all managed the same way.
The judge wrote that the manner in which the lawsuits were filed "… raises the specter of litigation abuse, and Mr. Hansmeier’s history reinforces this concern."
Davis said Wong is chairman of the DSA board. He recruited her to the board after she appeared in a documentary called "Independence to Inclusion" by Twin Cities Public Television in April 2014.
"He (Eric) had a vision for a better life," she said.
As far as Hansmeier's controversial past as an attorney, Davis said that doesn't concern her or any of the other board members.
"For us right now, it comes down to this, everybody has a past. What he did then is very different than what he's doing now," she said. "We're thankful for someone who's willing to help us exercise our civil rights."
In an email to the Post-Bulletin, Hansmeier reiterated the reason for the lawsuits is to make businesses more accessible, not to make money.
"Regardless of whether everyone agrees with my clients' efforts there can be no question that more attention to these issues will encourage more business owners to obey the law without the need for a lawsuit," he wrote.
Hansmeier also clarified in his email that a lawsuit he filed for DSA against Rochester's Kahler Grand Hotel in March plus a counter-suit filed in response by Kahler were settled in April.