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Steven J. Wells, Dorsey & Whitney LLP
Steven J. Wells, Dorsey & Whitney LLP

The POWER 30: Steven J. Wells

Family business disputes have been garnering a lot of attention in Minnesota lately. And they don’t seem to be getting any cheaper.

In 2017, Kim Lund extracted her assets from the family grocery business in a shareholder buyout of about $45 million. Then in 2022, Jim Koch left his family trucking business with a payment of $70 million.

Now there’s Warren v. Acova, which plaintiff’s attorney Steven Wells calls a “substantial case in terms of dollars and complexity.” It is about the pharmaceutical company Upsher-Smith, owned by the Evenstad family — parents and two adult children plaintiff. The company was founded by Ken Evenstad, who died in 2020. (See Janel Dressen, p. 7)

The company was sold in 2016 for $1 billion. After distributions to family members, the proceeds were placed in a holding company called Acova.

The case was tried last summer in a four-week Zoom trial before Hennepin County District Court Judge Edward Wahl. The plaintiff is seeking a buyout of her share in Acova as well as damages for bad faith and breach of fiduciary duty. Plaintiff alleges that the family’s estate lawyer restricted her rights at the time Acova was set up and the rest of the family was trying to freeze her out.

Meanwhile, Wells was in trial recently in a commercial case for Nissan North America in federal court in Indianapolis, the jury returned a verdict rejecting all of the plaintiff Nissan dealer’s multimillion-dollar contract and statutory claims, and finding, as Nissan North America argued, that it was the plaintiff-dealer that had breached its contract — a complete win for Wells’ client.

Wells’ approach to litigation is that facts matter, he told Minnesota Lawyer.

But we live in a time where evidence-based decision making has been “trashed” by public events, he said. That raises challenges during voir dire. He tries to explore jurors’ predilections in that area by “coming at it sideways,” he said.

“I ask them what they read, [trying to find out] if all they read is one thing and if the forum doesn’t respect alternative views,” he said.