The plot points sound like an over the top parable about the absurdities of the modern legal world.
A self-proclaimed guru from India named Mahendra Trivedi comes to America with the astonishing claim that he can use his mind to tap a “divine, intelligent energy” to transform the molecular structure of virtually everything: ceramics, fungi, bacteria, crops, livestock, even cancer cells.
This is perhaps related to the guru’s unique physical traits — including an abnormally low body temperature and “the largest pituitary fossa ever found in a healthy person” — which set him apart from the other 7 billion people on the planet.
Though he is a newcomer to the U.S., the guru deftly trademarks both his gift and a pithy slogan — the Trivedi Effect ® and Difficult to Believe, Impossible to Deny. ™
The guru also establishes several business entities to hawk a variety of product lines, including Trivedi Water™ (infused with energy transmissions from the guru) and Dahryn Silver Gel™ (a skin care product formulated with silver nano-particles, the “Universal Feminine Energy” of the guru’s wife and the guru’s own “powerful transformational energy”).
Lest this appear to be a crass commercialization of divine gift, the guru launches a nonprofit foundation to study potential applications of his gift to fields of “microbiology, biotechnology, agriculture, animal husbandry, pharmaceuticals and material science” and, naturally, the betterment of all mankind.
Claiming validation from “more than 4,000 documented scientific tests published in leading peer-reviewed international scientific journals” and countless testimonials on the Web, the guru’s enterprises soon rake in millions.
And then comes the second act.
Several of Trivedi’s former employees and other detractors find each other on the Internet, share stories and denounce the guru as a fraud, a tax cheat and worse.
Despite his world-changing powers, Trivedi seeks redress in a conventional manner and sues everyone in sight. While the bulk of the claims are dismissed or dropped, the guru and his associates garner three default judgments, each with the eye-popping dollar value of $59 million.
In a work of fiction, that litany of weird details would be a stretch. But they are the daily reality for a freelance writer from St. Paul who, as his bad luck would have it, is still duking it out in court with the litigious guru.
When does an attorney say I don’t want this case?
When he greeted a reporter at his modest home in the St. Paul neighborhood of Highland Park, Dennis Lang did not evince the hangdog manner one might expect of a guy who was been sued six times since 2012.
Smiling broadly, he conceded that the years of litigation has been a source of anxiety at times, mainly over money. Now 67, Lang miscalculated what he would need for retirement and now lives principally on Social Security.
Still, Lang related the particulars of his “bewildering” odyssey through the legal world with a zesty attention to detail, occasional wonderment, and, on the subject of Trivedi’s lawyers, a touch of naivety.
“What is it that goes through the minds of attorneys who have no qualms about using the legal system for those purposes?” he asked. “At what point do you look at a client and say you just don’t want the case?”
As Lang tells the story, his long-running battle with “our guru friend” began with the idea for a magazine pitch. A double major in philosophy and English, Lang spent most of his working life in the family apparel business. After the business went bankrupt (his sole prior involvement with the legal system, he said), Lang tended to his ailing mother and, 30 years after he graduated from college, enrolled in a journalism class at the University of St. Thomas.
After publishing a few articles in quarterlies, Lang was fishing around for a new topic when a friend told him about an amazing healer she met at a West Coast retreat.
Intrigued, Lang started poking around on the Web for more information about this mysterious Trivedi fellow. He soon discovered that the new age celebrity healer Deepak Chopra had introduced the guru to American audience at a Sages and Scientists convention in California. While the video of the interview had been deleted from Chopra’s blog, Lang posted a query and his contact information.
Soon, he said, he was flooded with responses.
“A large number of people contacted me, most providing accounts of their experience with Trivedi that were highly critical and some that were nothing short of harrowing,” he stated later in a deposition.
Among those who reached out to Lang was a California woman who had briefly worked for Trivedi, Michele Morrisette. Morrisette maintained an alternative medicine blog called PurQi (now defunct) that soon emerged as the go-to-site for Trivedi’s detractors.
Lang was soon inundated with sources who accused Trivedi of all manner of transgressions, “including deceit, fraud, federal and state law violations, illegal employment practices and sexual improprieties.”
Over the next two years, as he gathered more information, Lang posted hundreds of comments on PurQi blog. While he was aware that Trivedi had sued some of his critics (including Morrisette), he figured he had so much damning information that the guru decided to leave him alone.
On that score, Lang was, unequivocally wrong.
At first, Lang tried to dodge the process servers who kept showing up outside his house. Realizing he needed legal advice, Lang called Dorsey & Whitney, where he was referred to a libel specialist — “a really nice woman” — who informed him that he would need to come up with a $15,000 retainer.
Eventually, Lang did find an attorney willing to take up his cause on more palatable terms, the veteran media law practitioner Mark Anfinson.
When Lang learned that he was being sued in Arizona (where Trivedi was then-based; he’s since relocated to Nevada), Anfinson advised him to ignore it.
“Mark said they don’t have a leg to stand on,” Lang recalls.
‘Appalled that a judge would do this’
In a legal saga that is so long on absurd, it’s difficult to identify the apex.
It may have come in 2013, when Lang received a call from another Trivedi-nemesis — the former partner of the organization’s current CEO. The caller informed him that a judge in Arizona had just entered a default verdict and Lang was officially $59 million in the red.
But the peak silliness may have come on June 14, 2013, when a local attorney working for Trivedi — Kelly Hadac of the St.Paul firm HDK — sought to enforce that $59 million default judgment in Minnesota.
As she reviewed the paperwork, Ramsey County District Court Judge Margaret Marrinan expressed bafflement — both at the size of the judgment and the fact that there was no accompanying memorandum from the judge.
“It’s a fill in the blank kind of order, isn’t it?” she said. “I guess I’m rather appalled that a court would do that.” According to a transcript of the proceedings, at other points, Marrinan referred to “the incredible laxness of the judge” as “way out west” and “not the way I do business.”
Nonetheless, Hadac pressed the judge to enforce the order, saying that Trivedi had been “forced to take action because of [Lang’s] smear campaign.”
Anfinson, who was astonished that Trivedi bothered trying to enforce the judgment, noted that the $59 million figure was “by far the largest in the history of the state of Minnesota.” And, he told the judge, that outlandish sum illustrated that this fight wasn’t just about damages.
“This is essentially the equivalent of what the Romans did to the Carthaginians after the Third Punic War, in which they not only defeated them in battle, killed all their prisoners, but ploughed salt into their fields so they could never grow their crops again,” Anfinson said. “This is about sending a message to critics.”
While Marrinan didn’t rule on the spot, it didn’t take mystic to predict where she would come down. “I have grave concerns about the due process issues with regard to the default judgment,” she told the lawyers.
Lawsuit No. 2
Even after Marrinan vacated the Arizona judgment, Lang was pretty sure the guru wasn’t done with him. Sure enough, a few months later, he received a letter that, he said, boiled down to a simple proposition: If you shut up, we won’t appeal.
Lang consulted with Anfinson and they agreed on an equally direct response. “I had nothing new to say about Trivedi,” Lang recalled. “But we told them to go f**k themselves, we’re not giving up our First Amendment rights.”
In March 2014, Trivedi filed a new lawsuit against Lang in Ramsey County District Court. The 26-page complaint — which was drafted by Trivedi’s new attorney, Nathan Knoernschild — was far more expansive than its predecessor.
In the Arizona suit, Trivedi claimed Lang had made eight defamatory statements. Knoernschild included 62 statements in the new suit. (Now an associate at the downtown Minneapolis firm of Chestnut Cambronne, Knoernschild declined to comment for this article, saying he doesn’t discuss pending litigation as a matter of policy).
Anfinson said the addition of all those new statements will make for some “horrific” lawyering.
“That’s like 62 separate lawsuits, and it’s going to all go splat against the wall at summary judgment motion. I’ll have to present the public figure defense on 62 separate statements to a busy and distracted judge,” said Anfinson. “It won’t be easy.”
Anfinson tried to dodge that prospect, seeking to have the suit dismissed under Minnesota’s anti-SLAPP law. Aside from the three default judgments in Arizona, he noted, Trivedi and his associates had not prevailed in any of the similar lawsuits brought over the past four years. Morrisette — the PurQi blogger — convinced a California judge to toss her suit on an anti-SLAPP motion.
Still, Anfinson was never optimistic that would work in Minnesota, where the anti-SLAPP language is less robust. “Our SLAPP statute is very weak because it basically excludes any lawsuit that claims tortious behavior. So if there’s any superficial appearance of legitimacy, you’re toast,” he explained.
Last month, Ramsey County District Court Judge Robert Awsumb ruled in Trivedi’s favor, saying that Lang’s claim didn’t meet the standards for Minnesota’s anti-SLAPP law, which applies in cases where the speech at issue is “genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action.”
Anfinson was more hopeful about his second argument for dismissal: In the Minnesota action, Trivedi’s missed the two-year statute of limitations.
Knoernschild parried, successfully arguing that the guru’s right to sue was preserved under Minn. Stat. 541.18 — the so-called “savings statute.” Under the savings statute, if a claim results in a judgment and that judgment is subsequently overturned, the party can still bring a new action within a year of the reversal.
‘It looks so dirty’
With his crash course education in the law, Dennis Lang said he wasn’t shocked when Awsumb allowed the case to proceed. Anfinson had warned him that the anti-SLAPP gambit was a long shot and that obscure savings statute, Lang said, did appear to preserve the guru’s right to refile.
That said, Lang remains bewildered that the legal system isn’t quicker to recognize what seems to plain to him: The guru is using the courts, much like the Church of Scientology or the bicyclist Lance Armstrong, as a cudgel to shut up detractors.
“In the big picture, I don’t know how anyone could look at this and not have a horrible issue. It just looks so dirty,” he said.
As he prepares for the main event — discovery, more motions, and a fight on the merits — Lang remains certain he will prevail. After three years in the soup, he sounds a bit like a lawyer himself.
“Actual malice is the critical issue for our defense and, even if my sources were lying to me, I reported what I believed to be credible,” he said.
Despite his dim view of the opposing counsel, Lang has come to respect some of the lawyers involved in Trivedi litigation. Anfinson, he said, cut him a generous deal over legal fees. “For two years, the money matter never even came up,” Lang said.
The admiration runs both ways.
“I’ve rarely had a client I’ve enjoyed representing more,” Anfinson said. “The contrast between him and his adversaries is astonishing.”
If Anfinson’s most recent gambit doesn’t carry the day — a motion to dismiss on a hard-to-prove abuse of process claim — counsel and client will probably get to spend a lot more time together.