See more of the story

A federal judge has ruled in favor of a St. Paul landlord sued for alleged violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a decision seen as the first loss for a disability rights group that’s filed more than 100 such lawsuits statewide while drawing the ire of chambers of commerce, some politicians and the disabled community itself.

The ruling against the Disability Support Alliance and its attorney, Paul Hansmeier, also says they must pay a portion of the costs incurred by the landlord, Heartwood Enterprises, in fighting the lawsuit.

“Ultimately, the judge agreed with our case that Heartwood Enterprises does not treat individuals with disabilities any different than those without and that Heartwood did not violate federal or state law,” said Heartwood’s attorney, Joseph M. Windler of Winthrop and Weinstine.

The suit was similar to others filed by the DSA in which a member of the group claimed to have visited a small business only to be thwarted by missing ramps, mislabeled parking spaces, narrow doorways or other barriers to access. Many of the businesses have also complained that they would fix the ADA violations if given the chance, but lawsuits were filed before they could address access shortcomings.

DSA member Eric Wong and the DSA sued last year because Heartwood’s office building on Grand Avenue didn’t have a ramp to its front door, but in his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Magnuson said the DSA didn’t show that it was an ADA violation. The ADA says businesses must remove barriers to access when removal is “readily achievable.”

Magnuson essentially said Hansmeier didn’t prove that adding a ramp to Heartwood’s office met that standard.

Estimates gathered by Heartwood said it could cost up to $100,000 to install a ramp. Instead, the businesses that operate out of the Heartwood office building use an alternate location nearby when meeting with disabled clients.

Windler said his client was aware of the DSA’s and Wong’s history of suing small businesses and wanted to fight back.

“My client feels that this must be stopped,” Windler said of the DSA lawsuits.

Hansmeier faces disbarment or suspension from the state board that investigates ethics complaints against Minnesota lawyers due to his behavior in other lawsuits; a federal judge in December ordered the liquidation of Hansmeier’s assets after finding that Hansmeier sought bankruptcy protection to thwart his creditors.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747