In December 2014, Minneapolis resident Eric Wong drove up to the office building at 889 Grand in St. Paul. He wanted to check out a mental health business on the second floor. He found a main entrance with nearly three feet of steps and no ramp – a problem, because Wong uses a wheelchair.
Wong then sued the landlord, Heartwood Enterprises, for discriminating against people with disabilities. His lawyer: Paul Hansmeier of Minneapolis' Class Justice, who has filed more than 100 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits within the last couple years. Many of those lawsuits were filed on behalf of Wong.
Some of Hansmeier’s suits have driven small businesses out of business. Most owners settled, preferring to pay thousands of dollars to make Hansmeier go away, rather than cleaning out their bank accounts to go to court.
But businesses and people with disabilities have criticized Hansmeier for exploiting the ADA by suing in search of quick cash settlements, instead of actually working with anyone to improve conditions for disabled people.
On Wednesday, District Court Judge Paul Magnuson sided with Heartwood against Hansmeier, citing the basic definition of ADA. The law, according to Magnuson, doesn’t require that every building in the country have a wheelchair ramp. Many buildings older than the 25-year-old ADA do not. The ADA states that buildings should be made wheelchair accessible if it’s readily achievable.
Hansmeier argued that installing a simple ramp at 889 Grand would cost only about $10,000. He had his own brother, Peter Hansmeier, calculate that estimate after a cursory Google search.
Heartwood’s lawyer Joseph Windler hired a real ADA consultant to get the full cost. Properly building out a wheelchair ramp at a reasonable incline would look something like 114 feet of concrete zig-zagging through the entire front yard. Two sets of doors would have to be destroyed and expanded to fit wheelchairs. An elevator would need to be installed to take Wong up to the second floor. In total, removing Wong’s barriers would cost about $350,000.
That’s not to say Wong suffered any discrimination, according to Windler. Wong admitted in court that Hansmeier’s paralegal drove him to 889 Grand to look at the building, but he didn’t have an appointment with anybody there. Had he made an appointment, the business would have met him at another wheelchair-accessible location. Wong was treated like everybody else: no appointment, no admittance, Windler says.
“[Heartwood Enterprises] wanted to stand up for themselves and wanted the record clear that they complied with the law not just because it’s the law, but because it’s the right thing to do,” Windler says of his client’s decision to fight Hansmeier’s lawsuit every step of the way. “They know about [Hansmeier]. They’ve heard about [Hansmeier]. It was about principle and not caving.”
Windler says that after Judge Magnuson ruled in his favor, he received many calls of congratulations from the legal community. “No one is suggesting that a meritorious ADA lawsuit shouldn’t go forward, or that anybody should make it harder for them to proceed, but I think it’s well documented that some of these cases are suspect.”
Judge Magnuson ordered Wong and Disability Support Alliance, a disability nonprofit of unknown membership that is closely tied to Hansmeier, to pay Heartwood’s legal costs.
Hansmeier wasn't happy when we reached out for comment. "Report whatever you want," he said. "The bad PR you put out is actually great for my business. I can't believe my enemies are such dopes."