A rash of lawsuits filed against small-business owners has prompted legislators to propose a change.
HF2955, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Smith (R-Maple Grove), would add provisions to the Minnesota Human Rights Act governing civil lawsuits involving alleged violations of the act in relation to architectural and communication barriers in public places. The bill would provide new regulations, which would apply to attorneys sending demand letters and outline affirmative defenses for defendants.
Passed 82-45 as amended by the House Monday, the bill now goes to the Senate where Sen. Kari Dziedzic (DFL-Mpls) is the sponsor.
The bill is largely in response to frivolous lawsuits alleging Human Rights Act violations against businesses through demand letters. The demands were often seen as an effort to manipulate a defendant into reaching a monetary settlement, rather than take the claim to court.
“Small businesses across our state have been the targets of these legal actions,” Smith said at a House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee hearing earlier this year. “It seems the goal is cash and not the removal of any barriers. This bill seeks to facilitate access to our businesses for people with disabilities, while also addressing the unprincipled private litigation practices that have adversely impacted businesses across our state.”
Contentious House Floor discussion centered on the necessity of a demand letter as well as its requirements.
“There is no a single disability advocate at the Capitol that supports this bill as amended,” said Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul). “This bill is throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
“This process has been a colossal effort [of multiple departments],” Smith said. “No one has contacted me in any way saying that they do not support this.”
Changes include that a demand letter seeking removal of an architectural barrier would be required to specify the nature of the alleged violation, the law alleged to be violated and a reasonable time period of no less than 30 days to respond. A demand letter would be prohibited from requesting money to prevent a lawsuit from being filed, but would be required prior to proceeding with civil litigation.
A plaintiff would be prohibited from pursuing civil action if the potential defendant removes the barrier or demonstrates compliance with a remediation plan when the removal cannot be achieved by alternative means. If extenuating circumstances make it impossible to remove the barrier within 60 days of the notice, the plaintiff and the defendant may agree on a deadline for removal of the barrier. If they cannot agree, the plaintiff may proceed with civil action.
No changes would prohibit filing a complaint with the Department of Human Rights for a violation under the Human Rights Act.
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public accommodations to provide goods and services to people with disabilities on an equal basis with the rest of the general public. According to the ADA, “People with disabilities should be able to arrive on the site, approach the building, and enter as freely as everyone else. … Regulations require that architectural and communication barriers that are structural must be removed in public areas of existing facilities when their removal is readily achievable.”