Turnover, court intervention disrupts the state agency that oversees lawyers


The small and powerful state agency that oversees the conduct of Minnesota lawyers has been rocked by internal strife for several years, resulting in an exodus of key employees and an extraordinary intrusion into its inner workings by Supreme Court justices .

The agency, called the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility (OLPR), has been headed for the past five years by Susan Humiston, a seasoned corporate lawyer.

Since she took office in 2016, 14 prosecutors have left their jobs, most of them citing a toxic work environment. His leadership practices led a 23-member supervisory board to recommend against a two-year extension of his contract in 2020.

The vote took place behind closed doors and was not recorded. All but two members voted against the renewal.

“Susan Humiston should not be in a hot seat,” said Minneapolis attorney James Cullen, who spent six years on the board before his term expired last year. “What got her to get abrasive with her own attorneys is just beyond me. You’re not going to achieve office goals in that kind of atmosphere. It’s bad.”

However, in an unusual reprimand, the Minnesota Supreme Court ignored the board’s recommendation and renewed his contract last year.

A few months later, despite objections the supervisory committee and former directors of the OLPR, the court withdrew the authority of the supervisory board on personnel matters. The Supreme Court has ultimate authority over the operations of the OLPR.

In a written response to questions from the Star Tribune, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea upheld the supervisory board poorly conducted its investigation of Humiston’s tenure, saying his vote against Humiston was “procedurally flawed” because the board failed to verify the bullying charges and acted with “incomplete and inaccurate information about the plan of the facts “.

Several council members dispute these allegations. They say they followed the rules of the court and only acted when it became clear that Humiston’s failures as a leader were insurmountable.

The rupture now threatens the credibility of the agency charged with maintaining integrity within the legal profession. Eric Cooperstein, a former OLPR lawyer who now represents lawyers accused of misconduct, said the allegations of intimidation against Humiston could justify discipline from the agency she heads.

“If this case happened to the director, I think she would sue her,” Cooperstein said.

Seven of the agency’s 13 lawyers have resigned in the past 12 months, up from eight in the previous 17 years. Six of the lawyers who have left the agency since 2018 have been hired by Humiston, according to interviews and records.

Humiston declined an interview request. In a written statement, she said the agency was “not in crisis”.

“The stories of an abusive and harassing office culture saddens me but are not new and are not true,” Humiston said in the statement. “I am committed to a culture of respect, excellence and professional growth.”

In her statement, Gildea said an internal investigation by the Legal Counsel Division of the Minnesota Judicial Branch found that “Ms. Humiston did not commit misconduct.” Gildea said confidential workplace investigations “also do not indicate a toxic work environment as described in allegations” by former OLPR employees.

Gildea said criticisms of Humiston by former employees had to be seen in light of the challenges she faced, noting that previous executives had failed to reduce a “substantial backlog of cases that had persisted in the office. “.

“Change can be difficult, especially when long-standing practices that have allowed complaints and cases to languish without resolution need to be reversed,” Gildea said in the statement.

The High Court’s emphasis on efficiency was clear soon after Humiston took over as director in 2016.

In an article Humiston wrote to introduce herself to the legal community, she noted that the Supreme Court and the supervisory board feared too many misconduct cases would take more than a year to complete. She said improving the agency’s parameters would be her “number one priority”.

In 2015, the year before Humiston took over, the agency was still working on 161 cases open for more than a year, well above the Supreme Court’s target of 100, according to records. There were also 528 open cases, which was above the court’s target of 500.

Some OLPR lawyers have said they welcome Humiston’s arrival, noting that she was only the second woman hired to run the agency in its 50-year history. Colleagues have described her as a brilliant lawyer with a strong work ethic that has pushed her workers hard.

“She was very demanding and somewhat inflexible at times,” said Tina Trejo, who retired as an office administrator in 2018 after spending 31 years at the agency. “A lot of people were very upset … A lot of them had never been treated like that by a director. They had been very respectful. That changed after Susan’s appointment.”

The Star Tribune interviewed 10 of the 14 attorneys who resigned during Humiston’s tenure, as well as several support staff and a current employee. All employees criticized Humiston’s management practices, with most lawyers saying they had left at least in part because of the constant friction in the office. Most of the employees asked not to be identified, citing fear of retaliation from Humiston.

“It’s really sad,” said Siama Brand, who resigned his post as senior deputy director a year ago after spending 14 years at the OLPR. “She’s the biggest victim of Susan Humiston: she chased away passionate people who were genuinely dedicated to the work of the office and who genuinely care about protecting the public from bad lawyers.”

Former staff have cited several instances of what they called unprofessional conduct on Humiston’s part, including rudeness, condescension, slurs, yelling, micromanaging and berating in front of their colleagues. . A current employee missed more than a year of work due to persistent health issues the employee blamed on stress in the office. A former lawyer said she still suffers from work-related nightmares in which Humiston yells at her.

“She was determined to lower those numbers at all costs,” said Mary Jo Jungman, an office assistant who spent 31 years at the agency before retiring in 2020. “There were a lot of tears and a lot of it. intimidation. Each of us were terrified to come in and approach her. That’s why I retired early… It was toxic hell. “

In 2019, members of the supervisory board began contacting outgoing lawyers to find out why they were upset. They presented their findings in a closed-door session that lasted two and a half hours in January 2020.

Board members said former judge David Lillehaug, the court’s official liaison to the oversight committee, asked the board to make a decision on Humiston’s future at the meeting.

“The Liaison Officer was fully briefed and advised the Board of Directors regarding their recommendation before, during and after their deliberations and decision,” former Board Chair Robin Wolpert said in a written response. to the questions. “The Commission has worked diligently, conscientiously and in good faith in carrying out its work on the basis of the information in its possession, the extent of its authority and the direction of the Liaison Officer. Certain information contained in the Chief Justice’s statement was never disclosed to the Commission or is inconsistent with what was shared with Council. “

Lillehaug declined to comment. In his statement, Gildea said Lillehaug “did not seek to influence any member” of the supervisory committee and “did not prejudge the outcome”.

Although the High Court chose to renew Humiston’s contract, the judges brought in a mentor to “improve his communication and management skills,” Gildea said in her statement.

Morale has not improved at the agency, according to current and former OLPR lawyers.

Things came to a head early this year, when Humiston got everyone together for a virtual staff meeting. Instead of celebrating their success by taking the number of open cases to an all-time high of 442 in 2020, however, Humiston told staff members she was disappointed. She told them to look inside themselves and determine if they were really made for the job, the lawyers said.

“It freaked me out,” said a former OLPR lawyer, who resigned several months later. “I didn’t think I was going to get fired, but I didn’t want to work for a boss who would say something like that at the worst possible time.”

The meeting sparked a wave of departures that left the agency understaffed and struggling to meet its court-set targets for handling cases.

Mary Tilley, who joined the board in 2020 after spending 33 years working for the Washington County prosecutor’s office, said she believes it is time for Humiston to leave. She noted that the number of open cases has started to rise again, and she said Humiston misled the board by downplaying the challenges of dealing with so many staff departures.

“All she has is one excuse after another,” Tilley said. “Its effectiveness is not there … I don’t think you have to work in a toxic environment to recognize one.”

Jeffrey Meitrodt • 612-673-4132


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