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Disability Support Alliance v. CCRE, LLC

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

April 11, 2017

DISABILITY SUPPORT ALLIANCE, on behalf of its members, and SCOTT SMITH, Plaintiffs,
v.
CCRE, LLC, Defendant.

          Jennifer L. Urban, Legal for Good PLLC, Counsel for Plaintiff Disability Support Alliance.

          Padraigin Browne, Browne Law LLC, Counsel for Plaintiff Scott Smith.

          Peter M. Waldeck, Waldeck Law Firm P.A., Counsel for Defendant CCRE, LLC.

          MEMORANDUM OF LAW & ORDER

          Michael J. Davis United States District Court

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Scott Smith and Defendant CCRE, LLC's Joint Motion to Dismiss [Docket No. 22] and Smith's Motion for Sanctions Against Jennifer Urban Pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure [Docket No. 35]. Also, within Plaintiff Disability Support Alliance's Response Opposing Plaintiff Scott Smith's Motion for Sanctions [Docket No. 30], it has requested Rule 11 sanctions against attorney Padraigin Browne. The Court heard oral argument on March 30, 2017. For the reasons that follow, the motion to dismiss and Smith's motion for sanctions are granted and Disability Support Alliance's request for sanctions is denied.

         II. SUMMARY OF THE DECISION

         Attorney Jennifer Urban filed a brief containing unsupported, irrelevant, and inflammatory allegations against Plaintiff Scott Smith, his attorney Padraigin Browne, and former members of Plaintiff Disability Support Alliance (“DSA”). Urban accused them of criminal activity, but provided no admissible evidence to support her claims. She made these irrelevant allegations with the intent to harass. Urban also failed to conduct a reasonable inquiry by lodging the baseless allegation that Smith was still a member of DSA, when documentary evidence showed that DSA acknowledged Smith's termination of his membership in November 2015. In order to deter such behavior in the future and to preserve the integrity of the judicial process, the Court grants Smith's motion for Rule 11 sanctions. Urban is ordered to pay Smith's attorneys' fees incurred in responding to improper allegations made for an improper purpose and in bringing a Rule 11 motion to stop Urban's unethical behavior.

         DSA's request for sanctions is baseless and was filed in violation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure's safe harbor provision. Its request for sanctions against Browne is denied.

         Finally, DSA lacks standing, so it is dismissed from this case.

         III. BACKGROUND

         A. Allegations in the Complaint

         The Complaint alleges as follows:

         Plaintiff Disability Support Alliance (“DSA”) is a Minnesota nonprofit corporation. (Compl. ¶ 8.) Each member of DSA is a person with a disability who lives in Minnesota. (Id.) DSA's purpose “is to ‘eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability' and ‘promote the betterment of the lives of those living with disabilities.'” (Id.)

         Plaintiff Scott Smith is a member of DSA and resident of Minnesota. (Compl. ¶ 9.) Smith uses a wheelchair for mobility. (Id. ¶ 10.)

         Defendant CCRE, LLC (“CCRE”), is a Minnesota limited liability company. (Compl. ¶ 11.) CCRE owns the Cedar Cliff Shopping Center located in Eagan, Minnesota. (Id.)

         On April 22, 2015, Smith visited the Cedar Cliff Shopping Center and found 5 accessible parking spaces marked with paint and signage and accompanied by adjacent access aisles, although the parking lot had more than 200 parking spaces. (Compl. ¶¶ 12-13.) Additionally, the access aisles were not level and had ramps that bridged the change in level between the parking lot and the sidewalk adjacent to the shopping center. (Id. ¶ 14.) Smith uses a vehicle with a car-top wheelchair carrier, which he cannot operate if a vehicle is parked in the adjacent parking space and there is no access aisle. (Id. ¶ 15.) Furthermore, access aisles with slopes may cause his wheelchair to become unstable during transfer between the chair and his vehicle. (Id.)

         Because of the architectural barriers at the Cedar Cliff Shopping Center, Smith and other DSA members were deterred from visiting the Cedar Cliff Shopping Center, although they intended to return to patronize the center and its tenant business. (Compl. ¶ 16.) Smith attempted to access the Cedar Cliff Shopping Center, but could not do so due to the barriers. (Id. ¶ 17.) There is no allegation that any DSA member other than Smith visited the Cedar Cliff Shopping Center.

         B. Procedural History

         On September 23, 2015, DSA and Smith sued CCRE in this Court. The Complaint asserts Count 1: Violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. (“ADA”); Count 2: Violations of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. § 363A (“MHRA”)[1]; and Count 3: Civil Damages for Bias Offenses. In filing the lawsuit, both DSA and Smith were represented by attorney Paul Hansmeier of Class Justice PLLC.

         On August 22, 2016, attorney Padraigin Browne substituted for Hansmeier as counsel for Smith. [Docket No. 16] On September 12, 2016, the Minnesota Supreme Court suspended Hansmeier from the practice of law in Minnesota. In re Disciplinary Action against Hansmeier, 884 N.W.2d 863 (Minn. 2016). On September 15, 2016, the District of Minnesota suspended Hansmeier from practicing in the District of Minnesota, effective September 26, 2016. In the Matter of the Petition for Disciplinary Action against Paul Robert Hansmeier, Miscellaneous Case No. 16-53 (JRT) (D. Minn. Sept. 15, 2016). After September 26, 2016, DSA was unrepresented in the current case.

         On November 30, 2016, Smith and CCRE filed a joint motion to dismiss DSA and noted that Smith and CCRE had reached a settlement. [Docket No. 22] They argued that DSA should be dismissed because it had been proceeding pro se for several months since Hansmeier's suspension. Alternatively, they claimed that DSA lacked standing to continue prosecuting its claims in this lawsuit.

         On December 28, 2016, attorney Jennifer Urban filed a notice of appearance on behalf of DSA in this lawsuit. [Docket No. 28] Also on that date, DSA filed a Memorandum of Law Opposing Joint Motion to Dismiss. [Docket No. 27] This brief contained 12 pages of inflammatory allegations of criminal wrongdoing such as tax evasion, disability benefits fraud, and theft against DSA by Smith, Browne, and former DSA members Melanie Davis, Zach Hillesheim, and Aaron Dalton. The Court will not compound this harassment by repeating the allegations here. Significantly, DSA has submitted no affidavits to support its allegations. Although Urban has filed three documents entitled “Affidavit of Exhibits” with attached exhibits, none are affidavits. [Docket Nos. 29, 31, 42] Each “affidavit” is a list of exhibits and a signature line signed by Urban. There is no statement of personal knowledge, no statement that the attached exhibits are what the list says they are, no sworn statement, no declaration under penalty of perjury, and no notarization. Cf. 28 U.S.C. § 1746. Moreover, many of the allegations in the brief are made with no citation to the record at all.

         In the Memorandum of Law Opposing Joint Motion to Dismiss [Docket No. 27], DSA also claimed that Smith was still a member of DSA because Eric Wong, DSA Chair, had never received a written resignation from Smith. (Id. at 16, 18.) DSA also asserted that all DSA members had signed Member Assignment of Litigation Proceeds Agreements (“Assignment Agreements”), which assigned to DSA any proceeds from ADA or MHRA litigation in which the members participated, after deduction for attorneys' fees and costs.

         According to Urban, within 4 hours of filing the Memorandum of Law [Docket No. 27] on December 28, she was contacted by the Star Tribune and the attorney for a defendant from another case in which Browne is the plaintiff's attorney. On December 29, 2016, the Star Tribune published an article based on DSA's Memorandum of Law, repeating some of the criminal allegations against Smith and the other former DSA members. Fox 9 then ran its own similar story. Other media then ...


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