Editor’s Note: On June 1, 2016, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that U.S. District Judge Michael Davis erred in imposing sanctions against attorney Erick Kaardal and overturned the sanctions. In a summary of the case, the appeals court said that Kaardal “made good-faith, non-frivolous arguments.” However, the 8th circuit upheld Judge Davis’ decision to dismiss the law suit, concluding that an 1863 federal law “does not create a private right of action to members or descendants of the loyal Mdewakanton Sioux.” More information about the 8th Circuit decision.
Minneapolis lawyer Erick Kaardal is often on the cutting edge of legal rights issues. But in one case, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis evidently believes he went over the edge.
Davis slapped Kaardal and his small law firm with $281,906.34 in sanctions Friday, amounting to many of the defendants’ legal fees in a lawsuit that the judge concluded was frivolous.
“We are disappointed in the court’s decision to sanction myself and our law firm and intend to appeal it,” Kaardal said in a statement e-mailed to the Star Tribune.
Last September, Kaardal and his partner, William Mohrman, won a major victory when the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a 101-year-old law that made it a crime to make false political statements about a ballot question. In the past two years alone, he has represented companies that do not want to provide birth control for religious reasons, a resident suing Orono over a ban on wind turbines, and a legal challenge to a Wabasha County program that offered to throw out traffic tickets for drivers who pay to take a safety course.
His fortunes took a turn for the worse when he filed suit in May 2014 on behalf of some descendants of Mdewakanton Sioux Indians who were promised but never given 12 square miles of land in southwestern Minnesota by Congress in 1863 as a reward for siding with white settlers in the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. The suit sought to acquire the land and evict 75 private landowners, some municipal entities and the Lower Sioux Indian Community.
Davis ruled in June that Kaardal’s suit had no basis in law and was brought in “bad faith,” because he continued to press the case “after 11 years of unsuccessful litigation.” He asked the defendants to submit their legal bills.
On Friday, Davis approved the bulk of the bills and gave Kaardal and his Minneapolis law firm, Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson, 30 days to pay. He awarded $107,758.17 in attorney fees to the Lower Sioux Indian Community, $137,687.57 to municipal defendants, and $28,351.49 to attorneys for individual defendants.
Davis said the Lower Sioux Indian Community is immune from suit and there was no way Kaardal would succeed in evicting defendants from land “they and their predecessors have occupied for more than 100 years because of an allegedly illegal act committed by the United States government,” Davis wrote.
Kaardal had sought to delay any sanctions until an appeal could be heard, but Davis wrote that the firm had not demonstrated that it is likely to succeed in its appeal either.
“Sanctions are designed to publicly admonish, reprimand or censure individuals who advance frivolous litigation in bad faith,” Davis wrote.
Kaardal had told the court that a sanction of $350,000, the amount initially requested by the defendants, would cause significant financial harm to the firm of three partners. Davis said the firm did not submit any financial information to the court, so it had not proved it was unable to pay all or part of the sanction.
“This is an extremely complex area of the law in which the claims span over a hundred-year time frame,” Kaardal said in his e-mail. “The fact that two law firms spent over $320,000 in total for briefing and arguing one motion bears to the complexity and difficulty of the issues at hand. We will not argue this case in the papers and look forward to the opportunity for our day in court.”