Now that her client has been convicted of six felonies for hiding her two teenage daughters from their father for more than two years in a Byzantine divorce and custody battle, disciplinary proceedings against attorney and Supreme Court candidate Michelle MacDonald have ensued.
Most, but not all, of the 16-page petition filed by the Lawyers Professional Board on Aug. 9 is about the Sandra Grazzini-Rucki divorce case which saw MacDonald in trouble with District Court Judge David L. Knutson for talking too much and refusing to speak when addressed by the court.
She was sanctioned, cited for contempt and arrested, although she has never been found complicit with her client in hiding the daughters. Grazzini-Rucki was tried in Dakota County after being extradited from Florida. She is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Not unexpectedly, MacDonald has promised to fight the disciplinary proceedings. “She is steadfast in her opposition. We will litigate this,” said her attorney, Paul Engh of Minneapolis. MacDonald’s answer is due Aug. 25, Engh said.
This is MacDonald’s second encounter with the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board. She was admonished in 2012 for failing to deposit settlement funds in a trust account, failing to maintain proper books and records, failing to promptly deliver funds to a client and related matters.
Contempt charged; ‘torture’ alleged
MacDonald began representing Grazzini-Rucki in January 2013. According to the petition, she served subpoenas on three of Grazzini-Rucki’s former attorneys, directing the lawyers to appear at trial and provide copies of their billing records. The attorneys provided the documents but also moved to quash the subpoenas. MacDonald refused to excuse them from attending the trial.
After a hearing, the court quashed the subpoenas and assessed MacDonald and her firm $6,202.50.
Noting that MacDonald required the attorneys to attend court even though they had provided the information and Grazzini-Rucki could lay the foundation for the records, the court said that she had failed to meet her burden of demonstrating that it was reasonable to require them to both provide records and testify. The Court of Appeals affirmed the sanctions and MacDonald paid them.
But subpoena issues at were not the extent of the drama at the Grazzini-Rucki trial. MacDonald was repeatedly admonished by Knutson for interrupting and disrupting the proceedings, the petition alleges
The petition further states that while the court recessed, MacDonald took photographs in the courtroom, allegedly in violation of Minn. R. Ct. 4.01. She refused to provide her name, date of birth and address to the court’s deputies. At this time MacDonald told the judge that she had sued him on behalf of Grazzini-Rucki and her children and asked him to recuse. He refused.
Later that day, deputies attempted to cite MacDonald for contempt. She was taken to a holding cell after refusing to provide information. She refused to return to the courtroom, to stand, to put her shoes and glasses on and to speak to the deputies. She was handcuffed and taken to the courtroom in a wheelchair. MacDonald later claimed she was “tortured” and filed a civil rights suit against the county,
By the time the judge came into the courtroom, the client and staff had left with all the trial materials. Instead of interrupting and disrupting court, MacDonald refused to respond to the court’s inquiries, largely refused to participate in the case and refused to request any accommodation from the court, the petition alleges. She was then jailed overnight.
MacDonald was not tried for the misdemeanor that led to her night behind bars; in a pretrial ruling, a judge ruled that deputies should have obtained a warrant before searching MacDonald’s camera for incriminating evidence.
MacDonald and her husband, Thomas G. Shimota, in a dramatic 63-page complaint sued Dakota County and various officials for depriving her of her civil rights and torturing her. Some of the counts have been dismissed but a motion for an interlocutory appeal of the dismissal is pending.
An appeal in the Grazzini-Rucki case was dismissed because MacDonald failed to serve the appeal on the guardian ad litem or counsel.
The lawsuit against Knutson was dismissed. The court said, “Although Plaintiff accuses Defendant of compromising the Minnesota Court Information System, usurping court files, obstructing evidence, and acting with malice, oppression or fraud, noting in the record supports these allegations.” The 8th Circuit affirmed and denied an en banc review and the U.S. Supreme Court denied cert.
MacDonald has stated that Knutson retaliated against her and her client, statements that the OLPR says were made with knowledge of or reckless disregard for their falsity. She made these statements to the attorneys subpoenaed in the Grazzini-Rucki case, in court filings and to the Board on Judicial Standards.
MacDonald violated the ethical duty of competence and to bring only meritorious claims and contentions, the petition alleges. It further asserts that she violated her duty to obey judicial orders; engaged in disruptive conduct in court; used tactics with no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third person; knowingly or with reckless disregard made statements that she knew to be false about Knutson and acted with dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.
Trial took far too long
The second count in the petition related to the dissolution of marriage of Joseph D’Costa. The OLPR asserts that MacDonald failed to provide exhibits and other documents in a timely way and failed to organize the exhibits to correspond to the exhibit lists. The D’Costa court said that it was not an exaggeration to say that the exhibits, when proffered, “were a mess.”
The court said that the trial took far longer than it should have, due to MacDonald’s disorganization and lack of preparation. D’Costa was ordered to pay $20,000 in attorney fees or accept a property settlement reduction of $18,000. He was ordered to pay another $16,000 for fees on appeal.
Count two repeated some of the violations asserted in count one and also said that that MacDonald engaged in conduct disruptive and prejudicial to the administration of justice.