The chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court has reappointed Susan Humiston as director of the state agency in charge of lawyer discipline, despite objections from the board that oversees the office and allegations of bullying by former employees.

Humiston, who has led the state's Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility (OLPR) since 2016, was appointed to another two-year term by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, a court spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday.

In a March 31 letter to the chair of the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board, which oversees the agency and advises the Supreme Court on its operations, Associate Justice Natalie Hudson said the court's review did not support allegations by former employees that Humiston had created a "toxic workplace."

"There is no question that there are morale issues in the OLPR," Hudson said in the letter. "There are many causes for those morale issues, including actions taken by individual members of the board that appear designed to undermine the director's leadership of the office."

Humiston declined an interview request. In a statement, she said she was "thankful" to be reappointed.

"We have persevered through some challenging times, putting the mission of our office first and doing our best work every day," she said. "I remain committed to fostering a culture of excellence. ... I value the court's ongoing commitment to and investment in our office, and share their commitment to ensure we have a quality environment and high team morale."

Attorneys who specialize in discipline cases were dumbfounded by the court's decision to retain Humiston without providing the results of an internal probe into her conduct, saying it undermines public confidence in the system.

"Personally, I am concerned, and I know of other attorneys who are concerned," said Eric Cooperstein, a former OLPR attorney who now represents lawyers accused of misconduct. "The reappointment leaves a lot of unanswered questions, the biggest being: What is going to change?"

In a Jan. 31 letter, the oversight board sharply criticized Humiston, saying she was responsible for a decline in the quality of work handled by the agency. The board also faulted her for trying to "shift responsibility" for recent problems onto others.

"In sum, the board believes that [the agency] is being poorly managed, and believes that the director's poor management is hindering the office's important work," the board said in the letter.

One board member, who asked not to be quoted by name, said he doesn't understand why the court decided to rehire Humiston before a team from the American Bar Association (ABA) completes its review of the agency's operations. That team is expected to come to Minnesota this month to interview key individuals associated with the agency.

"It makes no sense to me," the board member said. "Let's say the ABA team comes in and says there has been a lot of bad behavior here. What does the court do then? I am just frustrated."

Other board members were philosophical about the decision to reappoint Humiston.

"It's up to the Supreme Court to either follow our advice or pursue a different direction," said board member Bruce Williams, an attorney in Virginia, Minn. "Ultimately, they have the final say and the board will respect their decision."

Since Humiston was hired to run the agency, 15 prosecutors have quit, with most of them citing a toxic work environment. By contrast, eight lawyers left the office in the prior 17 years. Former staff members have cited bullying and unprofessional conduct, including rudeness, condescension, insults, yelling, micromanagement and berating of them in front of colleagues.

Humiston has denied mistreating employees. In a written response, she said she works every day to ensure a "collaborative and respectful work environment."

Eight of the office's 13 attorneys quit in the past 12 months. In her letter, Hudson said the court will assign a "mentor" to help Humiston address "morale issues and management style and to improve the quality of the workplace."

"It remains to be seen what kind of impact this will have on the discipline system as a whole," Cooperstein said. "I think it's awful hard to train in a new staff of people when 60 percent of your attorneys are new. I have many files that are over a year old where there has been no activity in that time."

The office typically handles more than 1,000 complaints against Minnesota lawyers each year, but more than 100 complaints have languished for more than a year without any action being taken, records show. The Supreme Court has ultimate authority over OLPR's operations.

In December, Hudson told the oversight board that it should not consider the staff departures in its review of Humiston. The associate justice said that subject would be handled by state Court Administrator Jeff Shorba, who would interview current and former staffers as part of Humiston's performance review.

The Supreme Court stripped the oversight board of its authority over personnel in 2021 after reappointing Humiston to a new two-year term over the board's objections in the previous year.

Three former attorneys of the disciplinary agency said they spent just five minutes on the phone discussing their departures with a court official. They described the conversations as perfunctory and superficial.

"I got real upset," said one former agency attorney, who asked not to be identified because she fears possible reprisals. "I did two exit interviews with the court where I gave every detail of why I left, but this lady said she didn't have access to them. That is so insulting. It's like they threw them in the trash."

Hudson said the court's "comprehensive review," including interviews with most of the employees who left the agency in the past two years, did "not offer support for the narrative that the director's leadership or management style caused them to leave."

However, Hudson said the court agreed with the oversight board's concerns about delays in processing disciplinary cases. She noted that the agency "has not made significant progress in improving case-processing times."

In its letter to the court, the oversight board said Humiston "raised the issue of personnel turnover as a factor contributing" to slow case processing. The board noted that the agency's backlog remains largely unchanged despite a huge drop in new cases during the pandemic.

The oversight board said members were concerned that some case files demonstrated "inadequate investigation" and "nonexistent analysis of important legal questions."

A majority of board members also faulted Humiston for her "apparent failure to effectively delegate," noting that she told members she had reviewed all 500 open cases. "That appears to be impossible," the board said in its letter.

Hudson said the court has "stressed the importance of significant improvement in the timeliness of case processing to Humiston.

"I recognize that we have challenges to overcome to be more effective in our work, but I am confident in our ability to meet the court's expectations," Humiston said in her statement.