An attorney who has sued more than 120 Minnesota business over accessibility issues is now facing the possibility of sanctions related to his past legal practices. The Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board filed the petition seeking to suspend or disbar Hansmeier.
The lawyers’ board petition, filed in October, was made public last month. It has received attention because Hansmeier is also involved in a legal fight over his recent bankruptcy petition. A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge has sought the liquidation of his assets.
A court trustee and attorneys for claimants believe that he has sought bankruptcy protection in bad faith and is transferring assets improperly. Hansmeier has contended he needs to file bankruptcy so that he and his family can get on with their lives.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathleen H. Sanberg has ordered Hansmeier’s case converted to a liquidation from a reorganization. Hansmeier’s attorney argued against liquidation, saying that would prolong the case. But the judge has disagreed.
Hansmeier recently told a Fox 9 reporter that he intends to fight the bankruptcy court petition. If he chose to do that, it could take up to a year. The bankruptcy case isn’t Hansmeier’s only challenge.
The lawyers’ board case centers on a previous practice of Hansmeier’s and not on the accessibility lawsuits. Court documents and the lawyers’ board petition state that Hansmeier and his associates would plant links to pornography on various file sharing sites. They would then use legal processes to get the names of those who had downloaded material, and threaten them with lawsuits or public exposure. Most people chose to settle, for amounts ranging from $2,000 to $4,000.
That got the attention of state and federal court judges around the United States. One California judge accused Hansmeier and his associates of extortion. A Fortune magazine article stated that the scheme brought in more than $15 million.
If Hansmeier is suspended or disbarred, the access lawsuits would be affected. Hansmeier could not continue to represent his clients. Someone else would have to take the cases or they would have to be dropped.
For several months Hansmeier has made headlines for suing businesses throughout Minnesota, on behalf of a group called the Disability Support Alliance. Hansmeier and group members contend they want businesses to provide access as required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The lawsuits, filed in state and federal courts, have been very costly for small businesses. Several businesses in different Minnesota cities, from Marshall to White Bear Lake to Rochester, have been targets. Minneapolis and St. Paul businesses have also been sued.
Some business owners have said it would be easier for them to close instead of making costly improvements. Other businesses were sued as they were making accessibility renovations. Some lawsuits center on what are considered minor violations, such as a ramp that is not totally within ADA compliance. Critics contend that some cases have been settled out of court without accessibility improvements being made.
Business owners have said that while they want to provide access, they question the benefit of nuisance lawsuits. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and local business groups have rallied to help businesses. Business leaders have said they are looking at ways to address the situation through state law changes. One Minneapolis bar owner went so far as meeting with members of Congress.
The Minnesota State Council on Disability (MSCOD), which has a long history of helping business and work sites provide access, has also stepped in. MSCOD has posted information about the case and how it can help businesses, here.