Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wright County judge gives the green light to malpractice lawsuit against Tom Emmer


August pre-trial date set after judge rules against former GOP gubernatorial candidate’s motions to dismiss lawsuit filed by former political supporter.

By Karl Bremer

Once upon a time, Steven Hackbarth hauled State Representative Tom Emmer’s campaign float in parades with his John Deere tractor. Come August, Hackbarth will be hauling the 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate into court on a legal malpractice lawsuit.

Wright County District Judge Stephen M. Halsey January 5 denied three out of four of Emmer’s motions to dismiss the lawsuit, and set a pre-trial date for August 16.

Steven R. Hackbarth and his roofing contracting company, Hackbarth Enterprises Corporation, both of Silver Lake, a McLeod County town southwest of Emmer's hometown of Delano, filed the lawsuit in September 2010. The lawsuit was first reported on Ripple in Stillwater.

According to Hackbarth’s lawsuit, Emmer represented Hackbarth in a legal proceeding that resulted in a judgment against Hackbarth and cost him his state contractor’s license. Hackbarth says one of his roofing materials suppliers sued him in 2009 over money the supplier claimed Hackbarth owed him.

“People charged my account with the supplier and they weren’t supposed to,” Hackbarth told Ripple in Stillwater last October. “I was disputing that with my supplier, so I asked Emmer to represent me. But he didn’t file the documents he was supposed to file with the court. He showed up the day of the hearing.” Beyond that, Hackbarth said, “he didn’t do nothing.”

The timing of Hackbarth’s filing—less than two months before the 2010 election—led Emmer’s attorney Michael D. Schwartz to accuse Hackbarth of ulterior motives—despite the fact that he was a longtime political supporter of Emmer’s. From his court filings, it’s obvious that Schwartz was trying to ward off further embarrassment to his client before the election.

“It is shamelessly clear that your client has other and improper motives given the timing and substance of his actions,” Schwartz wrote in response to a filing by Hackbarth’s lawyer, Robert C. Hart. “If your client’s claims are anything other than a frivolous and baseless shakedown in light of the upcoming election, I trust your client will submit these claims for a truly neutral evaluation.”

Schwartz continued:

“(Emmer) will not pay your client to avoid sensational headlines, no matter how frivolous they may be.”

Former Emmer spokesman Carl Kuhl charged that Hackbarth was engaging in political “extortion” by trying to get a $200,000 settlement out of the failed GOP candidate for governor so close to the election.

“While Mr. Hackbarth denies political motivation, he made outrageous financial demands prior to filing his suit in the hope of leveraging Tom Emmer's candidacy to advantage himself,” Kuhl told the Associated Press. “Tom Emmer does not negotiate with extortionists.”

Evidently, Judge Halsey does.

Halsey ruled in favor of Hackbarth on three out of four motions for dismissal filed by Emmer. He granted Emmer’s request to dismiss Hackbarth’s individual claim against Emmer, but denied all others, including the claims for Hackbarth’s company, Hackbarth Enterprises Corporation, against Emmer.

“There are genuine issues of material fact as to whether (Emmer) breached any duty to (Hackbarth Enterprises Corporation),” Judge Halsey wrote. He added: “Upon review of the evidence … there are genuine issues of material facts as to whether there was a breach of contract or negligence, whether (Emmer’s) alleged actions caused (Hackbarth Enterprises’) damages, and whether (Hackbarth Enterprises) would have obtained a more favorable result in the underlying action.”

Halsey also rejected Emmer’s request to “reveal confidential information they reasonably believe is necessary to defend the present matter.” That information is related to a house fire at Hackbarth’s residence that Emmer has tried to make an issue in this case.

“The circumstances surrounding the fire have been called into question by the fire inspection report,” Emmer’s lawyer wrote in asking a judge to dismiss the malpractice case. “Additionally, other circumstances regarding the fire at Hackbarth's home will be divulged if this litigation survives ... as the facts of the fire are necessary to establish the absence of fault in (Emmer’s) defense of this baseless action.”

Hackbarth took issue with Emmer’s thuggish tactics in an interview with Ripple in Stillwater last October:

“Emmer is getting all nasty about it, blaming it on me. They hired a private investigator who’s making all kinds of bogus claims. They told us we better drop the suit, and if we didn’t drop the suit, he was going to release information about the house fire.”

Hackbarth says Emmer has represented him in other legal matters satisfactorily, but he regretted that Emmer has refused to take responsibility for his actions in this case.

“If he would have just apologized, it probably never would have come to this,” he told Ripple in Stillwater. “I pulled floats for him in parades for years. I have a John Deere tractor. My daughter has a goat, and we’d put a sandwich board on the goat with Emmer signs. And now all I got was kicked in the head. I thought he was my friend.”

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