WASHINGTON — Amy Rowland spent Wednesday telling her story on Capitol Hill.

The owner of the Bulldog Northeast bar and grill in Minneapolis says she was the victim of a lawyer who charged her business with violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act in hopes of a quick cash settlement.

After spending $15,000 in legal fees on a preliminary hearing and facing tens of thousands more for future court dates, Rowland settled her case for $8,000.

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Now, she’s urging Congress to rein in a legal tactic that has been used on scores of Minnesota businesses and on thousands of businesses across the country. “You have no notice, no time to do remedies,” Rowland said as she sat in the office of Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Poe of Texas.

Poe has introduced a bill that would require businesses to be notified of specific ADA violations and be given up to six months to fix them before they can be sued.

Poe said the bill’s intent is twofold. First, it would “make sure violations of the ADA are solved,” he said. Second, it would prevent “frivolous lawsuits.”

Paul Hansmeier, a Minneapolis lawyer who has brought many ADA-related suits, including the one against Rowland, defended his legal actions and said they would continue.

Rowland also pleaded her case to the staffs of several members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation Wednesday. In particular, she asked for help in keeping business owners from being sued personally for discrimination as Minnesota disability law allows.

Serial disability litigation by a few lawyers representing a few clients has become the target of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and national trade groups representing the lodging, retail and entertainment industries.

“The bottom line is that access to the disabled is good business, but companies need an opportunity to address any ADA violations,” said Doug Loon, the president of the Minnesota Chamber.

Questions of intent play heavily in this debate. Plaintiffs can sue a business even if they’ve never entered it and live nowhere near it, Poe said.

“This is less about removing barriers than drive-by lawsuits,” added Bruce Patel, a Texas hotel owner who joined Rowland in Poe’s office. Some businesses are actually targeted by Google searches, Patel claimed.

Eric Wong, who has a disability and sued Rowland, was the plaintiff in at least 32 other cases filed by Hansmeier. Hansmeier’s first notice to Rowland came in what appears to be a form letter that provides no specific details of what she might be doing wrong. The letter says only that “your property has issues that prevent persons with disabilities from patronizing your tenant’s business on a full and equal basis.”

Rowland denies that her business was violating the ADA.

Hansmeier told the Star Tribune that his client couldn’t fit his wheelchair up to tables in the front room of the Bulldog. Making Wong use wheelchair-accessible tables in the backroom smacked of “Jim Crow” laws, Hansmeier said.

The attorney denied any wrongdoing on the part of his clients or himself in filing multiple suits for disability law violations ranging from table access to threshold heights on doorways to the slope of parking lots. He offered what he said was a quote from a California judge that “serial litigation is no more about plaintiffs than it is about businesses.”

Hansmeier added: “To the extent that businesses keep breaking the law, I’ll keep doing this.”

In fact, he filed three new suits this week against a Minneapolis restaurant, a liquor store in North Mankato and a restaurant and bar in Mankato. He has filed at least 110 such lawsuits in the past two years.

Hansmeier also said that making plaintiffs wait six months to sue was not fair to those being denied access.

Poe told reporters that he would consider shortening the “fix-it” period to 90 days. But he maintained that notification protocols and repair opportunities are necessary to discourage lawyers from filing suits that are more about fast cash than human rights.

Star Tribune staff writer Dan Browning contributed to this report.

© 2015 the Star Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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