First Hand Account Of Judicial Smackdown Of Prenda In Minnesota
from the a-bit-of-confusion dept
I am not an attorney. I attended today's hearing out of curiosity and convenience. I happened to have an appointment across the street from the Hennepin County Government Center today and decided that it would be interesting to see the wheels of justice in motion first hand. As such, it is important to note that these are the observations of a layperson.
As the session started, Judge Alton announced that there was no live court reporter and that there was an audio recording being made instead.
Two other cases were called first, and then the Judge called Cooper vs. Prenda. She began by saying, "This one gives me a lot of pause." Then the attorneys introduced themselves.
Paul Godfread was present representing Alan Cooper (who was not in attendance) and Paul Hansmeier was present representing Prenda, et al. He sat alone at the table and I don't believe any other Prenda principals were in attendance.
Judge Alton then started off by addressing Hansmeier saying that it would appear he had a bit of a conflict relating to some findings of law, "[an] order from a US District Court Judge sanctioning you for fraud, among other things." She went on to say, "I'm not sure I should hear you at all." She asked Hansmeier if Morgan Pietz had filed the list of Bar Associations to which the Prenda principals were admitted as well as whether Pietz had sent copies of Judge Wright's order to all of the other Judges presiding over Prenda cases. Hansmeier replied, "I believe he did, your honor."
Judge Alton was clearly agitated going into this. In reference to the Prenda business model she said, "This is fraud, clear and simple." She also said, "I will be reporting this to the Lawyers Board." In fact, she would make a similar comment at least one more time at the end of the hearing. Still addressing Hansmeier, she went on, "Your involvement in this case is a TRAVESTY!" She added impact (both figuratively and literally) to that point by slapping her hand on the bench.
If I closed my eyes, I could have very easily assumed I was watching an episode of Judge Judy at this point. Judge Alton's passion and inflection as she admonished Prenda's behavior was, quite frankly, a tremendous surprise to me as a non-attorney. My discussions with actual attorneys after the hearing confirmed the abnormality of the scene.
In an attempt to defend their activities, Hansmeier referenced the the actions of the RIAA and MPAA. Judge Alton was unimpressed. She told him, "That doesn't mean you become your own zealot!" Further berating Prenda's pattern of mailing threatening settlement letters to alleged copyright violators, Judge Alton said, "You are guilty of fraud every time you send one of these letters." Hansmeier then began to reference the Jammie Thomas-Rasset case. Again, the Judge wasn't interested, interrupting with a curt, "So what?"
Now things got a little bit confusing. The Judge called Paul Hansmeier a fraud. Then she said that Alan Cooper is a fraud and that Paul Godfread may be a fraud as well. I looked to the person sitting next to me and the look on his face showed the same confusion. Quite humbly, Godfread told Judge Alton that he took exception to being labeled a fraud. He tried to clarify the situation but his message didn't seem to get through. In fact, for much of the hearing, Judge Alton was under the impression that Judge Wright's order actually implicated Alan Cooper as a Prenda Principal. Luckily this comes up again later.
As Godfread was explaining Cooper's actual position in reference to Judge Wright's findings, Hansmeier objected. He complained that there was no evidence to support the findings and said that they weren't given the opportunity to cross examine Cooper during the sanctions hearing in Los Angeles.
Throughout the hearing, Judge Alton would frequently refer back to Judge Wright's sanctions order, reading portions of it both to herself and out loud to clarify various points including asking where "Nevis" is. Godfread said it was an island in the Caribbean, most commonly known as an offshore tax haven. While he was saying this, Hansmeier was shaking his head.
The Judge continued to review the various exhibits filed with the case and Paul Hansmeier again raised the issue of not having been given the opportunity to cross examine Alan Cooper in L.A. Judge Alton glared at him saying, "That, right now, does not concern me."
She then turned her attention to Godfread saying, "You're not going to get any damages out of me. I don't give damages when everyone is a fraud." Again, she appeared to be under the impression that Alan Cooper was complicit in Prenda's actions. Godfread repeated his earlier assertions that Cooper was merely a caretaker for John Steele's property in Minnesota. The Judge then said, "Mr. Steele worked for Prenda Law which is running these phony lawsuits."
After reading further into Judge Wright's findings, Judge Alton finally identified the portion that clearly separated Alan Cooper from Prenda's actions and identified him as a victim of their fraud rather than a willing participant.
Unfortunately, this new realization didn't seem to alter Judge Alton's stance on refusing to grant any damages. Godfread decided to approach it from a different angle, though. In lieu of damages, he suggested that Judge Alton order Prenda to return all of the settlement money it had received over the course of its campaign. Judge Alton rejected that suggestion saying that it wouldn't be possible unless, via discovery or other means, they are able to determine how much money that actually is.
The Judge then took a moment to reiterate that Prenda's methods of threatening people are not allowed before moving on to the topic of service. This is, after all, a Default Hearing. Hansmeier repeated the assertion that Prenda never received service of the complaint. The judge looked through the folder in front of her and suggested that Godfread may not have properly served Prenda. She asked Godfread if he served them through publication. He said that he didn't, but told her that, as shown in his Affidavit of Service, he sent the complaint and the interrogatories via certified mail and provided a receipt from the US Postal Service showing that it was received by Prenda on March 18th. He also refers to the fact that Prenda DID respond to the interrogatories, so how can they claim they never received service of the rest of it? Judge Alton then said, "That will satisfy me."
Hansmeier then claims that Duffy received only the interrogatories and not the complaint, and that Godfread's receipt doesn't prove that the complaint was sent in that envelope. The Judge responded with, "Mr. Duffy's credibility is not good and he's not here."
Judge Alton then asked Godfread about other facts such as whether they have proof that Prenda was keeping the settlement money. Godfread said that Hansmeier himself admitted as much. Hansmeier responded saying, "That is categorically false."
The Judge then asked if Cooper had actually testified to the fact that he did not authorize the use of his name in the AF Holdings cases. Godfread confirmed that Cooper did testify to that. Then, talking to Godfread, Judge Alton said, "I can't find a conspiracy to harm him. I believe you but I can't find it."
She then made her order. She ordered that Prenda and its principals immediately cease using Alan Cooper's name, "and that's all. That's as far as I'll go."
In parting, she addressed Paul Hansmeier, once again saying, "I believe you to be in violation of a whole lot of rules." She then repeated her earlier statement that she was forwarding the case folder to the Lawyers Board.
And that was the end. Judge Alton then called a recess before the next case.
After leaving the courtroom, I sat down with another observer for a cup of coffee as we discussed how strange the hearing was. A few minutes later, Paul Godfread walked up and we chatted for a while about how the hearing had unfolded in such an unexpected way. He understandably lamented the lack of a damage award. When I told him that following all of this over the last several months has been educational, he expressed a fear of it being a poor source of education given how atypical these proceedings have been.
Still, I'm glad that I was able to attend today and I would encourage other members of the laity like myself to make an effort to observe these kinds of proceedings themselves. It was a truly fascinating experience.