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Some problems with Minnesota courts: a letter to anyone who cares

 

I have witnessed or personally experienced a number of situations that have resulted in court cases. In my opinion, they illustrate significant problems with Minnesota courts. The cases relate to -

1. domestic abuse
2. divorce
3. foreclosure, and
4. murder

The first three situations I have experienced myself; the fourth (two instances) involves my wife’s children. My knowledge of them is detailed and precise. Their separate and sometimes lengthy stories are posted on the Internet at my personal website, http://www.billmcgaughey.com. See the category titled “legal challenges”.

I am a reasonably clear writer but that does not mean that the situations are clear. I provide original court documents and personal commentary to tell the stories. Each story is carried forward to its conclusion. I think you will be amazed at what happened.

The links are found at -

domestic abuse http://www.billmcgaughey.com/domesticabuse.html (36,744 words)
divorce http://www.billmcgaughey.com/divorcebook.html (285,313 words)
foreclosure http://www.billmcgaughey.com/foreclosure.html (94,220 words)
murder http://www.billmcgaughey.com/jermainestansberry.html (7,398 words)
murder http://www.billmcgaughey.com/anthonyforesta.html (17,334 words)

The length of these stories may discourage reading them. But I wanted to include the complete record. In some cases, post-trial appeals added greatly to the length.

 

1. The story relating to domestic abuse included two separate incidents in 2011 and 2012, both involving jail experience. Ultimately, when I refused a plea bargain, the charges were dropped. There was no substance to the complaints.

What this case illustrates of a questionable nature regarding Minnesota court policies and procedures: Gender bias largely explains how the police handled my wife’s two complaints. The domestic-abuse industry in Minnesota is quite powerful. Minneapolis police automatically arrest the man when a woman complains. Allegations of domestic abuse are also often an issue in divorce cases. I was innocent of accusations that I struck my wife. Ultimately, the city attorney dropped the charges against me - but only after I made it clear I would not enter into a plea bargain and the case would go to trial. My wife’s attorney kept raising the issue of domestic abuse during the two-day divorce hearing, and the judge stated that he thought I might be guilty even though the charges against me had been dropped.

 

2. The story relating to divorce includes 14 months of expensive legal maneuvering starting in March 2011, the two-day trial in May 2012, the judge’s decision, a post-trial motion to amend the decision, the amended decision in December 2012, an appeal of the amended decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the appellate court decision in January 2014 eliminating the $50,000 award, an appeal of that decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court which declined to accept the case, a subsequent motion to eliminate spousal maintenance in September 2014, a motion to amend that decision, another appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals on February 12, 2015, the unfavorable Court of Appeals decision on December 28, 2015, and another decision of the Minnesota Supreme Court on February 16, 2016 denying the appeal. Of interest here is the extremely lop-sided award against me ordered by the trial-court judge and the partial but not complete correction of that award by the appellate courts.

What this case illustrates of a questionable nature regarding Minnesota court policies and procedures: First, the fact that divorce courts set the trial dates more than a year in advance gives ambitious attorneys an opportunity to stall on settlement offers, raise frivolous issues with the court, etc., and thereby run up legal fees to the point that the other party cannot compete. Although outright lies are told in the process, the courts make no attempt to investigate or determine which party is telling the truth. Second, judicial discretion is blatantly abused. Even though an equitable distribution of marital property (both assets and liabilities) is presumed, the trial-court judge assigned nearly all the $325,000 in marital debts (some of it incurred to finance the wife’s daughter’s education at a private college) to the husband. He ignored the fact that the wife had sold a condo in China for $100,000 four months before filing for divorce and given the proceeds to her daughter who financed her attorney’s fees in the divorce. He awarded the wife $500 per month in permanent spousal maintenance even though the retired husband was living on fixed income and could not pay his mounting bills, especially the interest on credit-card debt. Even though the judge acknowledged that the husband could not meet his own needs after a maintenance award to the wife, he went ahead with the award, thus violating Minn. statute 518.552, subd. 2(g). The wife, who had previously been general manager of a hotel in China as well as a sales representative at Target, was judged totally unable to support herself after the divorce. As a third element of decision, the judge ordered the husband to pay the wife $50,000 in cash by selling his pre-marital property; the Court of Appeals overturned that last decision.

The trial-court judge, James T. Swenson, who at the time of the trial (May 2012) was chief judge of Hennepin County, was an arrogant man who, besides claiming limitless discretion to ignore statute, frequently interrupted testimony, made sarcastic statements, gave the wife much more time for questioning witnesses than the husband, overlooked the Chinese-language interpreters passing notes to each other that seemed to suggest answers to the husband’s questions, abruptly ended the husband’s testimony before he was finished, and denied both parties the opportunity to make closing statements. In post-trial proceedings, this judge simply ignored issues raised by the husband (whom he called a liar) claiming that the appeal had not been properly presented. In making his original award, he had excluded from the calculation of needs the husband’s massive obligation to pay interest on the marital debt assigned to him and, upon appeal, continued to ignore this issue. Denying the husband’s motion to eliminate spousal maintenance, the judge instead increased it by $100 per month.

 

3. The story relating to foreclosure begins when, because of other payment obligations, the now divorced husband was unable to continue to pay the full amount of the mortgage on the duplex at 1715 Glenwood Avenue in Minneapolis. After reneging on an earlier settlement offer, the bank engaged the services of an expensive law firm, HKM, in St. Paul that in January 2015 immediately filed papers for a summary judgment although trial had been set for the following year. The defendant was able to beat back its first motion. The law firm then filed a second motion for summary judgment. The defendant paid the delinquent amount on the mortgage - $19,886.88 - from an advance on his inheritance. The bank’s law firm then submitted a bill of $21,519.55 for work done in collecting this debt. The judge reduced this to $14,726 because the bank’s second motion was unnecessary. The Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected a motion to reduce the amount of legal fees further.

What this case illustrates of a questionable nature regarding Minnesota court policies and procedures: The defendant states: I was having difficulty in paying my living expenses while dealing with divorce-related obligations. In the summer of 2014, I could no longer make the regular payments of around $1,500.00 per month on a mortgage for property at 1715 Glenwood Avenue. The bank would not accept partial payments. Having offered and then withdrawn a proposal to forgive the debt if I deeded the property to the bank “in lieu” of foreclosure, Boundary Waters Bank hired a high-priced law firm to collect the debt immediately even though a trial was scheduled to be held a year later. It filed papers in court to obtain a summary judgment that would force sale of the property so that the delinquent funds could be obtained. This motion failed due to several deficiencies. The bank then filed a second motion for summary judgment.

The upshot was that the bank sought to recover more than $21,000 in legal fees which it claimed were necessary to collect a debt of less than $20,000. Among other things, the bank was charging $295 per hour for the services of Christian Brandt, described in a court filing as a “junior attorney”, who did most of the work. The trial-court judge reduced the attorney’s fees award to $14,726 and the Court of Appeals sustained the award. This case illustrates how summary judgments make a mockery of the parties’ rights to settle a dispute at trial and how financially aggressive law firms can unreasonably generate billable hours at excessive rates in pursuing such judgments. It also illustrates how the courts ignore inconvenient statutes such as Minnesota statute § 580.30, subd. 1, which limits the award of attorney's fees to “one half of the attorney's fees authorized by section 582.01”. The judge in this case also opined that it was "unconstitutional" for the legislature to establish a statutory limit on attorney's fees because this was the court’s business. One can only gasp at such thinking. No wonder this court decision was unpublished and not allowed to be officially cited. However, the case was settled cooperatively by the two parties.

 

4. Jermaine Stansberry was convicted of a murder that occurred in August 2002 even though the facts clearly pointed to another man. The murder weapon was found on the pavement next to a parked van where that other man was sitting. Stansberry was subdued at least fifty feet away down the street. He was convicted on the testimony of a woman who said that in night-time lighting she had seen Stansberry engage in a “throwing motion” which presumably transported the gun across a concrete wall and the van to be next to that other man. (After the trial, she recanted this testimony.) Stansberry’s public-defense attorney neglected to call key witnesses to the stand.

What this case illustrates of a questionable nature regarding Minnesota court policies and procedures: The Minneapolis police wanted to nail Stansberry because he had previously filed a complaint against an officer. There was no evidence that he had access to a gun but much evidence that another man, Raymond Hardimon, did. The prosecution used oratorical tricks - repeated references to a “throwing motion” - to persuade a jury that the murder weapon found next to Hardimon was tossed there by Stansberry who presumably had used it to kill a man.

 

5. Anthony Foresta, who had previously served time for murder, was alleged to have accompanied the gunman to the scene of another murder in south Minneapolis. There was no evidence of his involvement other than the gunman’s testimony and a fuzzy film image from a security camera. Plea-bargaining, the gunman and his friends received 8 years in prison while Foresta, who stood trial, received 18 years.

What this case illustrates of a questionable nature regarding Minnesota court policies and procedures: The prosecution offered a plea bargain to the self-confessed murderer to sentence him to eight years in prison if he testified against Foresta to the effect that that he had been present at the murder. Foresta denied this. Other than testimony from self-interested witnesses, fuzzy security-camera footage and a generic-looking jacket were the only evidence employed to convict Foresta. For some reason, several eye witnesses who could have exonerated him were not called to the stand. Evidently knowing who I was, the prosecution tried three times to bar me, Bill McGaughey, from the courtroom where I sat quietly taking notes during the trial.

 

And so I have taken it upon myself to tell the story of questionable court practices that I have personally witnessed. Minnesota is better than this. We all want it to be better. In that spirit, I invite you to take a look at the detailed record of five court experiences and see if something can be done.

As for myself, after five years’ experience in dealing with judicial nonsense, I’m tired of the way the courts operate in Minnesota. I am now 75 years of age and, after 50 some years of living in Minnesota, am thinking seriously of moving out of state.

 

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French - Spanish - German - Portuguese - Italian  

 

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