News Column

Judge Fires Back in Rosa Parks Estate Dispute

June 6, 2012

David Ashenfelter

For nearly a year, Farmington Hills, Mich., attorney Steven G. Cohen has publicly hammered Wayne County Probate Judge Freddie Burton Jr. over his handling of the estate of civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

But Burton has finally fired back.

In a two-page order Monday, Burton dismissed Cohen's recently filed lawsuit against Burton and two probate lawyers Burton put in charge of the estate. Cohen had accused of them of conspiring with Burton to loot Parks' estate through excessive and unnecessary legal fees.

Burton also dismissed Cohen's request for a default judgment against Burton and the two lawyers -- John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr. -- and as well as Cohen's request for a subpoena to depose all three of them for the lawsuit.

Burton went on to accuse Cohen of engaging in a campaign that violates the state's code of professional conduct for lawyers and ordered Cohen to stop harassing him with "unfounded, illegal pleadings."

The judge also ordered lawyers in the case to stop filing legal briefs until he decides Cohen's request that Burton disqualify himself from continuing to handle the case.

Cohen was furious.

He accused Burton today of putting the cart ahead of the horse by dismissing Cohen's lawsuit before first deciding his request that Burton disqualify himself from continuing to handle the case. Cohen vowed to appeal today's order.

Cohen also stressed that Burton and the other defendants didn't file a response to the lawsuit or even request a dismissal. He said Burton simply dismissed the case without any proceedings to evaluate the merits of Cohen's request.

"It is impossible to overstate the abusiveness of Judge Burton's action today," Cohen said in a statement. "A judge must never render rulings of any kind in a case in which he is a defendant."

He said Burton's decision to dismiss the suit "is his grossest abuse of office yet, in a case that is filled with cronyism, theft, and judicial misconduct."

The lawyer for Chase and Jefferson said he was pleased with Burton's decisions.

"It's been a long time coming and certainly helps to rehabilitate the reputation of my clients," said Alan May of Troy. "And it's just the beginning of a fight that Mr. Cohen picked that he's not going to win."

The battle over Parks' estate began shortly after her death in 2005 when her nieces and nephews challenged the validity of her estate plan. It had given the bulk of her historically valuable possessions as well as royalties for the licensing of her name to her longtime personal assistant, Elaine Steele, and to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. Parks and Steele founded the institute in 1987.

After the relatives challenged the estate plan, Burton appointed Chase and Steele to handle Parks' estate in place of Parks' designees -- Steele and retired 36th District Court Judge Adam Shakoor.

In February 2007, the institute, Steele and the relatives settled their differences and signed a confidential agreement that gave the relatives a larger share of the estate.

Although the agreement called for Steele and Shakoor to be reinstated as co-personal representatives of the estate, Burton kept Chase and Jefferson in place.

Along the way, Cohen accused Chase and Jefferson, with Burton's approval, of draining the estate through exorbitant legal fees.

After the money was gone, Cohen charged, the lawyers falsely accused Cohen of disclosing details of the confidential agreement during a hearing over the fee dispute before the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Cohen said the lawyers used the alleged breach to persuade Burton to strip Steele and the institute of their share of Parks' estate, including control over Parks' possessions, said to be worth potentially $8 million.

Burton indicated in court documents that he planned to give the forfeited share to a charity of his choice after Guernsey's Auctioneers of New York City sells the Parks' belongings to an institution that can put them on display.

Cohen appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals and lost -- twice. But the Michigan Supreme Court in December ordered Burton to put Steele and Shakoor back in charge of Parks' estate and voided the forfeiture order.

Since then, Cohen has been trying to force Chase and Jefferson to give back their legal fees.

May has consistently said his clients did nothing wrong.

Source: (c) 2012 the Detroit Free Press

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