EAGLE LAKE — A Minneapolis attorney, who has been scrutinized by federal judges in Minnesota and California for the way he initiated lawsuits involving pornography copyrights, has found a new way to stay busy that has included targeting an Eagle Lake business.
A federal lawsuit accusing Eagle Lake Family Dentistry of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act by having a website not accessible to visually impaired users was filed in October by Paul Hansmeier, an attorney who has started a Minneapolis organization called Class Justice. The organization's website says its focus is providing equal access to buildings and the Internet for those with disabilities.
The plaintiff named in the Family Dentistry lawsuit is Lily Poss, a visually impaired woman from North Mankato. Poss said she supports the organization's mission statement. However, she's not sure she can support Hansmeier after learning about the tactics he's using.
Poss had no idea that lawsuit, nor another one involving a business called Bancwest Investment Services, had been filed in her name. It was her understanding she would be providing information about websites that would be used to educate businesses, she said. She said it was possible that lawsuits would be filed if businesses didn't comply, but she didn't realize Hansmeier and Class Justice would be going after small businesses such as Family Dentistry.
Attorneys representing Family Dentistry have filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed. It says the lawsuit has no grounds, in part, because it doesn't violate ADA regulations and it didn't keep Poss from accessing any of the business' services.
Poss sat in front of her computer in her apartment Friday demonstrating what she does for Class Justice. She receives a list of websites by email, then goes to each website to check if they are compatible with her Jobs Access With Speech, commonly known as JAWS, program. The program uses a computerized voice to describe what's on each website.
If a website, or a portion of it, doesn't have programming that is compatible with JAWS, she doesn't get a description. The Family Dentistry lawsuit cites a coupon for new customers on its website that JAWS wasn't able to describe to Poss.
The first few lists she received had five or 10 websites on them. The last list she received had more than 30 websites. One of the businesses she was checking Friday was the Taj Mahal Indian Cuisine Restaurant in North Mankato. The list included businesses from all over the state.
Poss' cousin, Hansmeier associate Allan Mooney, asked her to be involved with Class Justice, she said. She enlisted her friend Flint Million of Mankato, also visually impaired, to help. He has been named as the plaintiff in another Hansmeier lawsuit against HealthEast Care System, a Twin Cities group of hospitals and clinics.
"I had no idea it would turn into this," Poss said. "My cousin just called me one day and said, 'I have something that can be quite profitable for you if you are interested. All you have to do is we will send you a list of websites and we have a list of questions we are going to ask you."
Prior to that call, she hadn't talked to Mooney for years.
Hansmeier's lawsuits refer to Poss and Million as "testers." He said testers are commonly used in other types of ADA lawsuits involving housing and employment. The testers are recruited by Class Justice by spreading the word through people he knows, Hansmeier said.
When websites can't be used, Class Justice sends letters to business owners telling them how the website can be fixed. If the business doesn't respond, someone from Class Justice calls the business. A third letter that brings the issue "to more formal attention" is sent if the call doesn't get results. In addition to the lawsuits that have been filed, there about a dozen others that have received letters saying a lawsuit could be pending, Hansmeier said.
Ken Rodgers, past president of the American Council of the Blind chapter in Minnesota, said Internet access is a big problem for people who are visually impaired. There are also state and federal guidelines, which are cited in Hansmeier's lawsuit, that have been set for computers used by government entities. Businesses should be following those guidelines, too, he said.
There have been federal lawsuits against Netflix and Target that have said websites are no different than buildings when it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities, Rodgers said.
"They were the first federal cases to say virtual entities also have to abide by brick and mortar rules," he said. "Private businesses have been in this Internet netherlands for quite awhile, but the ADA requires them to be accessible."
The problem is there are so many ways to create a website that it's difficult to monitor every business, especially small businesses. Rodgers said the process Hansmeier is using isn't likely to change that. A better approach would be to educate business owners about the potential income they are losing by not making their websites accessible to people who are visually impaired.
"Is he trying to make websites accessible, or is he just banking on the lawsuit revenue?" Rodgers said. "All this is doing is making the attorney wealthy, not fixing the problem. I would much rather have somebody make a business case to a business that has a website."
"It's something I want to be legitimate," she said. "I do believe larger businesses should be targeted, not small businesses. I don't go to Eagle Lake for anything and I wouldn't have gone to the website if it wasn't on the list."
The Class Justice website says the organization "seeks partnerships with local and national advocacy groups related to the right to equal access and consumer advocacy."
Rodgers said he is not aware of any relationship the American Council of the Blind has with Class Justice. Hansmeier also couldn't name any advocacy organizations that are working with his organization.
Hansmeier has drawn national attention in technology and legal circles for his affiliation with an organization called Prenda Law. The group worked with a handful of pornography producers and used what's called "copyright trolling" to find computers that had been used to download what Prenda claimed were copyrighted porn videos.
Once the computers were identified, Hansmeier or other Prenda attorneys would file "John Doe" court actions requesting subpoenas that would require Internet providers to identify the computer users. Letters would then be sent to those users threatening a law suit, which would publicly identify them as Internet porn users, if they didn't pay a settlement fee of about $4,000 to close the case, according to federal court records.
Hansmeier was one of several people ordered to appear before U.S. District Judge Otis Wright in California earlier this year. Wright wanted to ask questions about their involvement with Prenda and other companies, including one called AF Holdings LLC, that were involved in the pornography cases. Wright's order said he suspected AF Holdings, which was one of the companies suing for pornography copyright infringement, was actually controlled by Hansmeier and others involved with Prenda.
Wright's conclusion after the hearing was that Hansmeier and the others were "attorneys with shattered law practices."
As a result of that hearing, Wright issued sanctions against Hansmeier and the others requiring them to pay $40,660 in attorneys fees and court costs for two lawsuits that had been assigned to his court. He also ordered them to pay the same amount in punitive damages. Then he sent the information from his cases to the U.S. attorney in central California and the Criminal Investigation Division of the Internal Revenue Service.
Wright also notified the Minnesota State Bar Association, which is doing a disciplinary investigation related to "moral terpitude," according to court records.
As a result of Wright's order, U.S. Magistrate Judge Franklin Noel reopened five porn copyright cases in Minnesota involving AF Holdings to determine if any fraudulent evidence or testimony had been used. In an order issued Wednesday, Noel said AF Holdings' information had been fraudulent and ordered the company to return any money it had received in settlements and pay all attorney and court costs for the people who had been sued. He set a deadline of Nov. 20 and said the cases would be dismissed.
Noel also ordered his clerk to send information about his cases to law enforcement authorities so an investigation could "untangle" the relationship between Hansmeier, others involved in the copyright lawsuits, Prenda Law and AF Holdings.
"Such an investigation can more effectively be conducted by federal and state law enforcement at the direction of the United States Attorney, the Minnesota Attorney General and the Boards of Professional Responsibility in the jurisdictions where the attorneys involved in the apparent scheme are licensed to practice law," Noel's order said.
Hansmeier has appealed Wright's sanction order. He also denied being involved in Wright's cases. Hansmeier said he had sold his interest in Prenda before the cases were filed.
"I got caught up in a lawsuit I was never involved in," he said. "We sold the practice in late 2011, but a lot of people continued to associate us with it."
Hansmeier also said there is no reason to think Class Justice will be filing frivolous lawsuits on behalf of Poss, Million and other testers.
"We consider ourselves to be an advocacy association more than we consider ourselves a law firm," he said. "With the porn reputation, I wanted to shift my focus and focus on something more positive. We're really focused on doing it right so anyone who hears about us says, 'Yeah. This is the right way to go about it.'"