Two state agencies are investigating the abrupt closure of Bismarck photography studio Glasser Images last week, and the business owner is facing at least nine lawsuits.
The popular photography studio announced last Thursday that it was immediately closing its doors and would not offer refunds for services already booked, citing the coronavirus pandemic. The news left hundreds of customers frustrated and many workers wondering if they would get paid.
An attorney for Glasser Images said Wednesday that the company was working to get photos of weddings that had already taken place to clients, a process that could take weeks.
“Everything is being secured and kept safely on a number of hard drives,” attorney Tim O’Keeffe said. “It’s just a logistical challenge to try to get this stuff to the rightful owners.”
He declined to comment on the status of any potential refunds, which numerous customers still hope to see.
Meanwhile, the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office has received more than 450 complaints from Glasser customers and photographers who worked as contractors for the company. The state Department of Labor and Human Rights has received claims from Glasser employees seeking unpaid wages.
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“There’s a high level of frustration with the public, and I want them to understand how seriously we are taking this,” said Parrell Grossman, director of the consumer protection and antitrust division within the attorney general’s office.
The attorney general’s office has issued subpoenas to Glasser Images and owner Jack Glasser seeking numerous business-related documents, and it will likely schedule a hearing once it has reviewed the material, Grossman said.
The state will try to determine if fraudulent conduct has occurred. In situations like this, investigators look at when the business knew or should have known it was in serious financial trouble and whether the company nevertheless continued to collect customers’ deposits, Grossman said.
Glasser Images has deleted its website and social media pages over the past week, but it posted on Instagram soliciting clients just days before its closure.
After a hearing, the state could choose to sue Glasser, according to Grossman.
“It can be a monthslong process or it can take less than that depending on how long it takes for the business to provide records,” he said.
A potential legal case could end in one of several ways, including a settlement or a judgment ordering Glasser to pay a set dollar amount. Money collected through a lawsuit would be distributed to Glasser clients, Grossman said.
“It’s likely to be a small amount available unless something extraordinary turns up in terms of what financial assets this business could have,” he said. “There just isn’t any scenario in which there is good news.”
The state could also ask the court to bar Glasser from doing business to prevent it from engaging in deceptive or misleading practices in the future. And it could become involved in bankruptcy proceedings should the company file for bankruptcy, which Glasser had not done as of Wednesday morning.
The attorney general’s office has received complaints from both customers and contractors, but it has clearer legal authority to pursue the matter for clients and is focused on that, Grossman said. The office also has been in touch with investigators in other states where Glasser operated and is willing to assist them, he said. Glasser also operated in South Dakota, Minnesota and Colorado.
Glasser’s attorney said Wednesday that the company intends to fully cooperate with the attorney general’s investigation.
The labor department is working through claims from Glasser employees. When a worker files a claim, a department investigator seeks a response from the company and then makes a determination if wages are owed and in what amount, Investigator Kiersten Small said. If a company owes money but does not pay, the department may work with the attorney general’s office to try to enforce the claim, she said.
The nine lawsuits active against Glasser were filed in small claims court over the past week. A person can file a claim there for amounts $15,000 or less without hiring an attorney.
It could be a matter of weeks before Glasser clients hear from the company or its attorneys about their specific situations, O’Keeffe said. His law firm has received thousands of inquiries.
Glasser is working with other photography companies to sort through and edit customers’ images, though O’Keeffe declined to name the businesses so that they would not get “bombarded” while the logistics are sorted out. He did not elaborate on compensation for those companies.
“We’re working with companies that are going to be able to deliver the quality that is expected from when (customers) first engaged Glasser,” O’Keeffe said.
Customers can email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Former employees can contact O’Keeffe about retrieving their personal belongings from the Glasser studio in downtown Bismarck.
The company indicated that contracts it had with photographers would not bar them from shooting weddings they were assigned, and contractors are free to release photos to clients, according to O’Keeffe’s law firm. The attorney on Wednesday did not discuss the financial aspects of such arrangements.
O’Keeffe estimated Glasser worked with 150 contractors.
The White Lace Bridal store in Bismarck has set up a GoFundMe account to help compensate photographers and videographers who have donated services or offered discounts to Glasser customers. Several Facebook groups have formed to help customers and photographers.
Jack Glasser founded the photography company in 2005. Glasser Images operated in North Dakota and surrounding states shooting weddings, senior portraits and family portraits, and offering other photography services.
Glasser has blamed the closure on the pandemic, which hurt a number of businesses that relied on weddings for revenue as couples decided to scale down or postpone the events. Glasser received two loans totaling $500,000 through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, a coronavirus relief effort meant to keep workers employed.
“It got to the point where Glasser had to make a really tough financial decision and had to close the door,” O’Keeffe said. “There were a lot of factors. I can’t point to one thing.”
Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or email@example.com.