Legal Ethics

Prenda Law attorney who had switched to ADA suits is suspended for earlier 'copyright trolling' work

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A Minnesota lawyer whose practice has recently focused on suing businesses for ADA violations was indefinitely suspended from practicing law for his past legal work targeting people who illegally downloaded pornographic videos.

Conduct allegations against Paul Hansmeier include discovery abuse; willfully violating court orders; and lying to the court about finances, according to the Pioneer Press.

Hansmeier was one of three operators of Prenda Law, which has had numerous legal problems in recent years. In June, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an $81,000 sanction filed against the firm.

Besides Hansmeier, the sanction was also imposed against John Steele and the late Paul Duffy. The lawyers, through their law firm, set up shell companies that purchased copyrights to pornographic movies. When someone illegally downloaded one of the films, Prenda Law or a local lawyer it hired would file a complaint against the “John Doe” downloader and use discovery to uncover his or her identity. That person would then receive a letter threatening suit unless he or she paid about $4,000 to settle. The plaintiffs’ real business, the appeals court said in its opinion (PDF), was “copyright trolling.”

In 2015, Hansmeier opened a Minnesota law firm called Class Justice, which filed Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits against businesses not in compliance with the federal regulation, CityPages reported. When the article ran last year, he reportedly had filed 15 state court cases, and another 45 in federal court.

Some businesses owners made improvements after receiving Hansmeier’s letters, but were sued anyway, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce told CityPages. Hansmeier responded that if the businesses were following the law, they wouldn’t have been sued. He described the chamber of commerce’s accusations as “pot shots” against his clients.

Michael H. Frasier, a Minneapolis lawyer who represents businesses, estimates that in the past three years Hansmeier has brought hundreds of cases, and the average settlement was reportedly $8,000. Minnesota has what’s known as “pocket service,” Frasier explain to the ABA Journal, where you can instigate a lawsuit by in-person summons service, and the actual complaint does not need to be filed until a year later.

“What I’m hearing is that his priority is not making sure there’s been barrier removal; he didn’t come back to make sure the work was done,” Margot Imdieke, an accessibility specialist with the Minnesota State Council on Disability, told the ABA Journal. However, due to the various news articles about the suits, she says that more businesses which haven’t been sued are contacting her organization, because they want to make sure they’re in compliance with ADA regulations.

Hansmeier can seek reinstatement to the Minnesota bar in four years, according to the Minnesota Supreme Court order (PDF) published Sept. 12. He told the Pioneer Press that he didn’t know whether he would, but he did plan to continue working on behalf of people who are disabled. Many of the cases also list his wife, Padraigin Browne, as counsel. She told the ABA Journal that she would continue suing companies for ADA matters.

“There’s a wide range of businesses that are nowhere near in compliance, and my clients are continuously running into issues,” she said.

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