Fool for Counsel
In recent days callers to the Brehmer Law Offices in Bloomington have reached a cryptic recorded message. After three rings, a soothing female voice comes on the line, explaining that "these numbers have changed." Instructions follow for reaching David L. Brehmer at one number, and four other attorneys at another.
For a while it almost appeared as if Brehmer had gone AWOL. People who had been scheduled to go up against him in court found their cases plagued by delays, and dozens of increasingly urgent letters from state officials went without a response for months. One of those letters came from the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, the state agency that investigates complaints against attorneys: It notified Brehmer that the office had asked the state supreme court to suspend him from the practice of law indefinitely. Among other things the request alleges that Brehmer has "attempted to perpetrate fraud on the court, violated court orders, brought bad-faith, frivolous and harassing litigation, made false statements to a client, failed to respond to motions." If the high court grants the suspension, it will be Brehmer's seventh discipline in 11 years of practice in Minnesota.
(Brehmer finally did contact the board last week, denying the allegations and pleading for more time to respond. But state officials say it may have been too late.)
The current disciplinary proceedings against Brehmer stem from complaints by four former clients. One of them, a disabled veteran named Dennis Williams, was the subject of a City Pages cover story last year ("Rage Against the Machine," February 10, 1999). Williams's complaints about Brehmer echo those made by the state's watchdogs; his lawyer, he complains, failed to keep in touch and ultimately botched his case.
Williams's saga began in 1993, when he first started trying to get work as a laborer with the City of Minneapolis. According to city documents, hiring officials kept making serious mistakes with his personnel files, and he was repeatedly denied the chance to compete for the jobs he sought. Williams eventually complained to the city's Affirmative Action Management Division, a subsection of the Human Resources department.
He also filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis against the city and the Park Board, a separate governmental body whose personnel files are handled by the city's Human Resources department. In February 1996 Williams turned the suit over to Brehmer (who, he had heard, had a good track record bringing cases against the city).
In 1997 city investigators concluded that Williams had probably been discriminated against and "needed to be made whole." Shortly afterward, city attorneys agreed to settle the federal lawsuit by paying him $52,000 and giving him the job he'd been seeking. The Park Board wouldn't budge, however, and Williams soon discovered that his city job wasn't materializing either.
By his own account he became severely depressed and checked himself into the Veterans Administration Medical Center at Fort Snelling. There he told mental-health workers that he needed treatment because he had had thoughts of "messing up" several city workers. Hospital staffers asked whether he had a gun; when he said yes, they contacted the city to warn the employees. Williams was arrested at the hospital and charged with making terroristic threats, a felony.
Meanwhile Williams's lawsuit against the Park Board was falling apart. According to the documents in Brehmer's disciplinary file, the attorney missed deadlines and key hearings and didn't bother to inform his client. When the Park Board filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss Williams's claim, the office alleges, Brehmer failed both to respond and to inform Williams. (Brehmer denies this, saying he sent Williams a letter and phoned his fiancée.)
He did, however, file a motion of his own, asking to be allowed to withdraw from the case. The violent thoughts Williams had voiced to psychiatrists "diminished his credibility to an extent that I feel the case is essentially shattered," he said, explaining that he had heard Williams had threatened him. Now that the case was unlikely to yield any damages, he added, he couldn't afford to keep working on it. (There is no record of a threat against Brehmer.)
On December 18, 1998, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Montgomery dismissed Williams's lawsuit and ordered that he not be allowed to file a new one. The plaintiff, she noted, had failed to show up to plead his case. No one pointed out that Williams was at that moment locked up one block away from the courthouse in the Hennepin County Jail.
Dennis Williams hadn't talked to David Brehmer for nearly nine months by the time the bill showed up in his mailbox last August. In May a jury had listened to two weeks of testimony on his saga and quickly acquitted him on the terroristic-threat charges. But he was still reeling from the experience, he says, and when he saw the four-page list of $7,175 in fees--including $75 for time Brehmer had spent dictating his motion to withdraw from his case, and another $225 for discussing the case with City Pages--he resolved to let the state know what had happened.
Because complaints against lawyers remain confidential unless certain serious sanctions are imposed, Williams had no way of knowing that he wasn't the only former client with concerns about Brehmer. The state's file on the current case alleges that the attorney illegally practiced law in Wisconsin, helped a parent in a custody battle hide children in violation of a court order, and failed to pay a $48,000 fine levied against him.
On May 2 the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility asked the state supreme court to consider its request that Brehmer be suspended; oral arguments in the case are scheduled for June 1. The high court doesn't have a set timeline for deciding cases, but Ed Cleary, the office's director, says he expects a decision in 30 to 90 days. (Information on attorney-discipline actions is posted on the office's Web site, www.courts.state.mn.us/lprb/index.html.)
What happens at the actual hearing depends on whether Brehmer shows up to defend himself. Lawyers, Cleary says, are notorious for not showing up for their own disciplinary proceedings. "It's very ragged," he adds. "Lawyers get in trouble, and they shut down. And when they shut down, they don't brief, they don't argue, they don't show up."
Mike McGlennen, a Minneapolis attorney who specializes in representing lawyers and judges, concurs. He says attorneys facing state sanctions often do things they know are "dumb," like failing to get representation. "It's embarrassing to have to go to a another lawyer," he suggests.
It now appears that Brehmer has decided to get legal help after all: Last week he filed a motion with the supreme court asking that the justices send the matter back to Cleary's office so he could plead his case there. In the motion, he argued that more than two decades of struggles with depression, as well as a divorce and a custody battle, are at the heart of his problems. In another document filed with the court he says he has been "living out of a suitcase."
"I sincerely pledge to this court that you have finally gotten my attention," he writes, "and that you will keep my attention until this matter is resolved to your satisfaction." He also says he has sought mental-health treatment and hired an attorney to represent him.
When reached by City Pages late last week, Brehmer said he had given Cleary's office as much information as he had. "I didn't respond to every letter," he conceded. "I tabled it to deal with later and later never came.
"In Williams's case in particular I have denied his allegations categorically and in detail," he added. "Dennis Williams probably got more of my attention than any other client I had during that time....I feel sorry for Dennis Williams. I think at the heart of things, he has a good case. He just made it unwinnable."
At the time this story went to press, it was unclear whether the supreme court would grant Brehmer's request or go ahead with the June 1 hearing. Either way, McGlennen and other attorneys say Williams's lawsuit will probably remain closed: Courts rarely overturn a dismissal because of a lawyer's neglect or even malfeasance. Williams could sue Brehmer for malpractice, but he'd have to prove that he would have won his suit against the Park Board. Or he could apply for money from a fund set up by the state bar association to compensate individuals who have been done wrong by attorneys.
For now, Williams is simply surprised at hearing of Brehmer's explanation for his behavior. He's "not at all impressed" with the attorney's plea for sympathy in the court documents: "David isn't the only person who has experienced hardship as a result of depression," Williams says. "As a result of his actions, I'm dealing with my depression to this day. He could have stepped out a long, long time ago and said he couldn't handle it."
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