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Leiendecker v. Asian Women United of Minnesota

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

June 3, 2013

Lawrence Leiendecker, et al., Respondents/Cross-Appellants,
v.
Asian Women United of Minnesota, et al., Appellants/Cross-Respondents, Greenstein, Mabley & Wall, L.L.C., et al., Cross-Respondents, Ruvelson & Kautzer, Ltd., et al., Cross-Respondents, Maria Gloria Fressia, et al., Appellants/Cross-Respondents, Susan L. Triplett, Cross-Respondent.

Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CV-12-7021

Thomas Gunther, Virnig & Gunther, PLLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondents/cross-appellants Lawrence and Sinuon Leiendecker)

Kay Nord Hunt, Phillip A. Cole, Bryan R. Feldhaus, Lommen, Abdo, Cole, King & Stageberg, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellants/cross-respondents Asian Women United of Minnesota, Melani Suarez, and Claudia R. Stahl)

Thomas P. Kane, Nadia B. Hasan, Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for cross-respondents Greenstein, Mabley & Wall, L.L.C. and Frank T. Mabley)

Bryon G. Ascheman, Corinne Ivanca, Burke & Thomas, PLLP, Arden Hills, Minnesota (for cross-respondents Ruvelson & Kautzer, Ltd. and Edward F. Kautzer)

Patrick J. Sauter, Rachel B. Peterson, Bassford Remele, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellants/cross-respondents Maria Gloria Fressia, Suzanne M. Cook, Valerie F. Wurster, Kristine M. Arneson, Hong-Ngoc (Ruby) H.N. Nguyen, Naweichi Temu, Regina M. Chu, Saran B. Crayton, Quoc-Bao Doan Do, and Sushila R. Shah)

Louise A. Behrendt, Stich, Angell, Kreidler, Dodge & Unke, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Georgeanna M. H. Ihrke, Eden Prairie, Minnesota (for cross-respondent Susan Triplett)

Considered and decided by Connolly, Presiding Judge; Ross, Judge; and Stauber, Judge.

SYLLABUS

An expert witness who submits an affidavit in the course of a legal proceeding is absolutely immune from liability under the absolute-privilege doctrine.

OPINION

CONNOLLY, Judge

Appellants jointly challenge the district court's denial of their motions to dismiss respondents' complaint pursuant to Minnesota's anti-SLAPP statute, arguing that the district court misapplied the statute. By notice of related appeal, respondents also challenge the district court's application of the anti-SLAPP statute, arguing that the statute was not properly invoked. In addition, respondents argue that the district court erred by (1) dismissing or restricting their claims against certain defendants on grounds of absolute privilege; (2) dismissing their claims of abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium; and (3) compelling arbitration of one of the two respondents' remaining claims. We affirm.

FACTS

Appellant Asian Women United of Minnesota (AWUM) is a Minnesota nonprofit corporation that operates a battered women's shelter and provides advocacy services primarily within the Asian-Pacific Islander community. Respondent Sinuon Leiendecker was employed as AWUM's executive director from July 1999 until her termination in February 2004. Respondent Lawrence Leiendecker performed pro bono legal services for AWUM from 2002 until early 2004. AWUM and the Leiendeckers have been involved in litigation for nearly a decade, including four previous lawsuits and two previous appeals.

In November 2003, the Leiendeckers formed a new board of directors for AWUM out of concern that the current board was operating illegally. The new board terminated the old board members and commenced a declaratory-judgment action to have the new board confirmed as AWUM's governing body. The old board filed a third-party claim against Sinuon Leiendecker, alleging that she had been terminated and received unsanctioned wages and benefits. Following a hearing, the district court declared that the old board was AWUM's governing body, excluding two board members, appellants Quoc-Bao Doan Do and Sushila R. Shah, and invalidated Sinuon Leiendecker's termination. The district court allowed the remainder of the old board's third-party claim to proceed.

Upon receiving the order, AWUM's board of directors terminated Sinuon Leiendecker. Subsequently, Sinuon Leiendecker moved for advance indemnification pursuant to Minnesota law and AWUM's bylaws, and AWUM moved to join Lawrence Leiendecker as a party to its third-party claim, alleging legal malpractice. The district court denied AWUM's motion but granted Sinuon Leiendecker's motion for advance indemnification. In August 2005, the district court dismissed AWUM's claim for failure to tender advance indemnification.

Later in August 2005, Sinuon Leiendecker filed a wrongful-termination action against AWUM, Do, and Shah. The district court granted AWUM's motion to dismiss the action, but this court reversed and remanded. See Leiendecker v. Asian Women United of Minn., 731 N.W.2d 836 (Minn.App. 2007), review denied (Minn. Aug. 7, 2007). The parties ultimately settled the case in August 2008.

In February 2007, AWUM filed a legal-malpractice action against Lawrence Leiendecker, who counterclaimed for indemnification and moved for advance indemnification. Lawrence Leiendecker also unsuccessfully moved to dismiss AWUM's complaint, but while his motion for reconsideration was pending, AWUM requested that the district court dismiss its legal-malpractice action and Lawrence Leiendecker's counterclaim. The district court dismissed AWUM's complaint in February 2010, but allowed Lawrence Leiendecker's counterclaim to proceed. Subsequently, the district court granted Lawrence Leiendecker's motion for summary judgment on his counterclaim for indemnification and motion for advance indemnification.

In February 2008, while Sinuon Leiendecker's employment action and AWUM's legal-malpractice action were pending, AWUM filed a conversion action against Sinuon Leiendecker, alleging that she took unauthorized compensation. Sinuon Leiendecker counterclaimed for indemnification and moved for advance indemnification. Although the district court initially denied Sinuon Leiendecker's motion, the district court granted her motion on remand from this court's reversal of its original order. See Asian Women United of Minn. v. Leiendecker, 789 N.W.2d 688, 693 (Minn.App. 2010). AWUM again failed to tender advance indemnification, resulting in dismissal of the conversion action in June 2011.

The Leiendeckers commenced this, the fifth lawsuit between the parties, in February 2012, alleging that AWUM maliciously prosecuted the legal-malpractice and conversion actions. The Leiendeckers also asserted claims of abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy, civil aiding and abetting, negligent infliction of emotional distress, loss of consortium, and vicarious liability. In addition to AWUM, the Leiendeckers sued appellants Claudia Staul and Melani Suarez, the current and former executive directors of AWUM, and a number of current and former members of AWUM's board of directors.[1] We will refer to AWUM and its current and former executive directors and board members collectively as AWUM. The Leiendeckers also sued Susan L. Triplett, who performed accounting services for AWUM and submitted an affidavit in connection with AWUM's conversion action against Sinuon Leiendecker; Frank T. Mabley and Greenstein, Mabley & Wall, LLC (Mabley), who served as AWUM's legal counsel beginning in early 2004; and Edward F. Kautzer and Ruvelson & Kautzer, Ltd. (Kautzer), who were hired by AWUM to provide expert testimony in connection with its legal-malpractice action against Lawrence Leiendecker.

AWUM, Triplett, Mabley, and Kautzer all brought motions to dismiss the Leiendeckers' complaint. Following a hearing, the district court, in relevant part, (1) denied AWUM's motion to dismiss pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute; (2) dismissed Lawrence Leiendecker's claims against Kautzer and restricted the Leiendeckers' claims against Do and Shah to their nontestimonial actions on grounds of absolute privilege; (3) dismissed the Leiendeckers' claims of abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium under Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(e); (4) allowed the Leiendeckers' claims of malicious prosecution, civil conspiracy, civil aiding and abetting, and vicarious liability to proceed; and (5) compelled arbitration of Sinuon Leiendecker's remaining claims. This appeal follows.

ISSUES

I. Did the district court err in applying Minnesota's anti-SLAPP statute?

II. Did the district court err in dismissing Lawrence Leiendecker's claims against Kautzer and restricting the Leiendeckers' claims against Do ...


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