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Left to right: Jonathan Strauss, Kenneth Fukuda, Mark Zitzewitz, Sonia Miller-Van Oort, and Lorenz Fett

Attorneys of the Year: Privacy Legal Team, Sapientia Law Group

Jonathan Strauss, Kenneth Fukuda, Mark Zitzewitz, Sonia Miller-Van Oort, and Lorenz Fett

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fired John Hunt in January 2013 for looking up driver’s license records and photos for more than 5,000 people, mostly women, over a five-year period. But if it hadn’t been for Sapientia Law Group and Ann Rasmusson, Hunt – and many other state and law enforcement employees – would never have been caught.

The Privacy Legal Team at Sapentia Law Group includes Larry Fett, Sonia Miller-Van Oort, Jonathan Strauss, Kenn Fukuda, and Mark Zitzewitz. In 2012, all but Zitzewitz (he joined the firm in 2013) brought suit on behalf of former St. Paul police officer Ann Rasmusson against dozens of agencies and individuals.

The case settled in 2012 for more than a million dollars, but more importantly to Rasmusson than money, the settlement required the Minnesota Department of Public Safety to audit the driver’s license database regularly for searches by name (instead of by driver’s license number). It also has to augment the training users get in legitimate uses of the database.

Since the Rasmusson case, other plaintiffs with similar experiences have come to Sapientia. Strauss said that the firm has filed more than a dozen cases, and has another three dozen clients with whom they haven’t yet filed. “We think we’re probably in 80 to 90 percent of the cases currently being litigated on this issue,” he said. The firm is also seeking certification for a class of defendants whose records Hunt accessed, in a lawsuit filed in partnership with Sieben Grose Von Holtum & Carey.

The litigation has focused a great deal of attention on the issue of data privacy in Minnesota, and what municipalities and agencies must to do protect it. The discussion has reached the highest levels of government; Rep. Steve Simon, D-Hopkins, has suggested that the penalties for accessing these records improperly might be enhanced. “The problem is so much broader than one or a dozen cases,” Zitzewitz said. “Minnesota has been very slow to recognize the problem and even slower to fix it.”

That’s why, despite some criticism and predictions that these lawsuits will break agencies and governments, Miller-Van Oort defends the need to keep pressing them. “It takes this kind of awareness and scope of litigation to force the change to happen,” she said.

Ultimately, they hope that these cases become unnecessary. Once agencies do a better job of requiring their employees to use the database appropriately, Fett said, there will be no need for legal action. “All these plaintiffs are really asking is that [agencies] enforce a law that Congress passed,” he said.

In the meantime, though, the driver’s privacy litigation has become a vehicle for a cause, one that the Privacy Law Group is determined to press until driver’s license records are better protected. Fukuda said the issue offers a chance to use the law to create more justice.

“We want to help people and do something that leaves a lasting impact, and this is a situation where people’s rights are being violated,” Fukuda said. “Cases like this are why we all went to law school.”

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