The small, powerful state agency that polices the conduct of Minnesota lawyers has been roiled for several years by internal strife, leading to 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), for five years has been led by Susan Humiston, a veteran corporate attorney.

Since she took charge in 2016, 14 prosecutors have quit their jobs, with most of them citing a toxic work environment. Her leadership practices led a 23-member oversight board to recommend against a two-year extension of her contract in 2020.

The vote was taken in a closed-door session and has not been previously reported. All but two members voted against renewal.

"Susan Humiston shouldn't be in a hot-seat job," said Minneapolis attorney James Cullen, who spent six years on the board before his term expired last year. "What caused her to somehow become abrasive with her own prosecutors is just beyond me. You are not going to achieve the objectives of the office in that kind of atmosphere. It is bad."

However, in an unusual rebuke, the Minnesota Supreme Court disregarded the board's recommendation and renewed her contract last year.

A few months later, over the objections of the oversight committee and former OLPR directors, the court removed the oversight board's authority on personnel matters. The Supreme Court has ultimate authority over OLPR's operations.

In a written response to questions from the Star Tribune, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea maintained the oversight board mishandled its investigation of Humiston's tenure, saying its vote against Humiston was "procedurally deficient" because the board failed to verify charges of bullying and acted with "incomplete and factually inaccurate information."

Several board members dispute those claims. They say they followed the court's rules and acted only when it became clear that Humiston's failures as a leader were insurmountable.

The rift now threatens the credibility of the agency charged with upholding integrity within the legal profession. Eric Cooperstein, a former OLPR attorney who now represents lawyers accused of misconduct, said the allegations of bullying against Humiston could warrant discipline from the agency she runs.

"If that case came to the director, I think she would prosecute it," Cooperstein said.

Seven of the agency's 13 attorneys have quit in the past 12 months, compared to eight departures in the prior 17 years. Six of the attorneys who have left the agency since 2018 were hired by Humiston, interviews and records show.

Humiston declined an interview request. In a written statement, she said the agency is "not in crisis."

"The accounts of an abusive and harassing office culture sadden 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 Minnesota Judicial Branch's Legal Counsel Division found that "Ms. Humiston did not engage in misconduct." Gildea said confidential workplace surveys "also do not indicate a toxic work environment as described in the allegations" by former OLPR employees.

Gildea said the criticism of Humiston by former employees must be viewed in light of the challenges she faced, noting that prior leaders failed to reduce a "substantial case backlog that had persisted in the office."

"Change can be hard, particularly when longstanding practices that allowed complaints and cases to languish without resolution must be undone," Gildea said in the statement.

The high court's focus on efficiency was clear shortly after Humiston became director in 2016.

In an article Humiston wrote to introduce herself to the legal community, she noted that the Supreme Court and the oversight board were concerned that too many misconduct cases were taking more than a year to finish. She said improving the agency's metrics would be her "number one priority."

In 2015, the year before Humiston took charge, the agency was still working on 161 files that had been open for more than a year, well above the Supreme Court's goal of 100, records show. There were also 528 open cases, which was above the court's goal of 500.

Some OLPR attorneys said they welcomed Humiston's arrival, noting she was just the second woman hired to run the agency in its 50-year history. Colleagues described her as a brilliant attorney with a strong work ethic who pushed her workers hard.

"She was very demanding and somewhat inflexible sometimes," said Tina Trejo, who retired as office administrator in 2018 after spending 31 years at the agency. "Many people were very unhappy ... Many of them had never been treated like this by a director. They had been very respectful. That changed after Susan was appointed."

The Star Tribune interviewed 10 of the 14 attorneys who quit during Humiston's tenure, as well as several support staff members and one current employee. All of the employees criticized Humiston's management practices, with most of the attorneys saying they left at least partly because of constant friction in the office. Most employees asked not to be identified, citing fear of retaliation by Humiston.

"It is really sad," said Siama Brand, who resigned her position as senior assistant director a year ago after spending 14 years at OLPR. "That is the biggest casualty of Susan Humiston: She drove away passionate people who were really committed to the work of the office and who really care about protecting the public from bad lawyers."

Former staff members cited multiple instances of what they called unprofessional conduct by Humiston, including rudeness, condescension, insults, yelling, micromanagement and berating them in front of colleagues. One current employee has missed more than a year of work because of ongoing health problems the employee blamed on office stress. A former attorney said she still suffers from work-related nightmares in which Humiston is shouting at her.

"She was hellbent on getting those numbers down 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 bullying. Every one of us were terrified of walking in and approaching her. That is the reason I retired early ... It was a toxic hellhole."

In 2019, members of the oversight board began reaching out to departing attorneys to find out why they were unhappy. They presented their findings during a closed-door session that lasted two and a half hours in January 2020.

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

"The liaison was fully informed about and advised the Board regarding its recommendation before, during and after its deliberations and decision," former board chairwoman Robin Wolpert said in a written response to questions. "The Board worked diligently, conscientiously and in good faith in performing its work based on the information in its possession, the scope of its authority, and the direction from the liaison. Some information in the Chief Justice's statement was never disclosed to the Board or is inconsistent with what was shared with the Board."

Lillehaug declined to comment. In her statement, Gildea said that Lillehaug "did not seek to influence any members" of the oversight committee and "did not prejudge the outcome."

Though the high court elected to renew Humiston's contract, the justices brought in a mentor to "enhance her communication and management skills," Gildea said in her statement.

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

Things came to a head early this year, when Humiston called everyone together for a virtual staff meeting. Instead of celebrating their achievement in bringing the number of open cases to a record-low of 442 in 2020, however, Humiston told staffers she was disappointed. She told them to look inside themselves and figure out whether they were really cut out for the job, attorneys said.

"It freaked me out," said one former OLPR attorney, who quit 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 ignited a wave of departures that has left the agency shorthanded and struggling to meet its court-ordered targets for processing cases.

Mary Tilley, who joined the board in 2020 after spending 33 years working for the Washington County Attorneys Office, said she thinks it is time for Humiston to go. She noted that the number of open cases has begun creeping up again, and she said Humiston has mislead the board by minimizing the challenges of dealing with so many staff departures.

"All she has is one excuse after another," Tilley said. "Her effectiveness is not there ... I don't think you have to work in a toxic environment to recognize one."

Jeffrey Meitrodt • 612-673-4132