July 23, 2011
Six years after her death, the memorabilia collection of civil rights icon Rosa Parks – medals, papers, even the hat she wore on her historic bus ride – is in the hands of a New York auction house, its ownership in limbo, with a value once pegged at $10 million.
Her estate, with a cash value of $372,000 at the time of her death, is mostly gone – eaten up by lawyer’s fees.
The financial portrait of Parks estate, which has been kept under seal since her death, is outlined in a new Michigan Supreme Court filing that offers the first detailed glimpse into a long-running feud over distribution of her assets.
The legal filing contends that Wayne County Probate Judge Freddie Burton Jr. allowed two court-appointed attorneys, John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr., to pile up excessive fees that drained nearly $243,000 from the estate, or about two-thirds of the cash value.
After the money was gone, the filing charges, the lawyers persuaded Burton to award them Parks’ vast memorabilia collection and the rights to license her name, which Parks had given to her Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development long before she died.
Steven Cohen, who represents Elaine Steele and the institute in the probate case, filed the request Tuesday, asking the Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court decision that stood behind Burton’s handling of the case and accused the judge of overstepping his bounds by arbitrarily appointing Chase and Jefferson as fiduciaries when the lawyers were not previously involved in the case.
“Since Mrs. Parks’ death in 2005, the court system of her adopted city has embarked on a course to destroy her legacy, bankrupt her institute, shred her estate plan and steal her very name,” Cohen said in the filing. Cohen wants the institute and Steele to get the property back.
Chase and Jefferson did not respond to a request for comment. An aide to Jefferson said he left the office Wednesday after receiving an e-mail and a copy of the Supreme Court filing from the Free Press.
But the Michigan Court of Appeals backed Burton’s handling of the case and credited Chase and Jefferson for increasing the value of the estate by recognizing the worth of the memorabilia.
Burton told the Free Press: “Unfortunately, I can’t say anything at all because it’s a pending case. It’s a very controversial case, and I certainly will wait to see what the Supreme Court decides.”
Attorney Lawrence Pepper, who represents Parks’ nieces and nephews, defended the lawyers and Burton.
“I have no issues with what Chase and Jefferson have done, and the judge has conducted the proceedings in a fair manner,” he said.
Cohen said in the filing that Burton has kept his actions and rulings sealed to prevent the public from finding out that the lawyers were disregarding Parks’ final wishes.
In language rarely seen in a legal brief, Cohen wrote that Wayne County Probate Court is “a nest of cronyism and corruption.”
A long debate
The Parks’ estate brawl dates to 2002 when Parks’ niece Rhea McCauley unsuccessfully petitioned Wayne County Probate Court to appoint her guardian and conservator for Parks, alleging that Steele was neglecting and exploiting her aunt.
Steele was Parks’ longtime friend, personal assistant and co-founder of Parks’ namesake institute, which the pair created in 1987 to teach young people about the civil rights struggle and help them achieve their potential.
Burton rejected McCauley’s petition after a court-appointed guardian interviewed Parks who, he said, didn’t want McCauley to be her guardian.
Parks died in October 2005 at the age of 92.
In November 2005, Parks’ nephew William McCauley petitioned the court to be named personal representative of his aunt’s estate, claiming Steele had tricked Parks into signing a will that cut her 13 nieces and nephews out of any decision-making about how Parks likeness would be used and any profit derived from the licensing of her name and image.
Almost immediately, retired 36th District Judge Adam Shakoor filed a competing petition, asking Burton to appoint him and Steele as co-personal representatives under a will and trust Parks created in 1998.
Under that estate plan, Parks, who had no children, gifted the bulk of her property to her institute to carry on its work.
Steele was to receive 90% of the royalties from book rights, and the relatives would get 10%.
An inventory conducted after Parks’ death showed that the estate had $372,000 in cash, including $227,000 from a lawsuit settlement against record companies and stores that had distributed or sold CDs by the hip-hop duo OutKast, which used Parks name in the title of a song without the civil rights icon’s permission.
Though Parks designated Steele and Shakoor to administer her estate, Burton picked Shakoor and William McCauley. Later, he replaced them with Chase and Jefferson.
“Because the estate was modest and consisted solely of liquid assets, there was minimal work for the fiduciaries to perform,” Cohen said in the filing. “Chase and Jefferson’s only role should have been to inventory the estate and then distribute it upon conclusion of the contest.”
Instead, Cohen said, they waded into the estate brawl and billed for unproductive and unnecessary work. And since they were represented by a Troy law firm, “virtually any time Chase and Jefferson performed administrative work for the estate, prepared a written document or appeared in court, there were eight or more hands reaching into the estate for payment of fees at an aggregate billing rate in excess of $1,000 per hour,” Cohen said. In February 2007, after a six-month battle, the institute, Steele and the relatives signed a confidential settlement agreement.
In exchange for confirming the validity of Parks’ will and trust, Cohen said, the institute agreed to give the relatives a part of the royalties it received from licensing Parks’ likeness and image. Parks had assigned those rights to the institute in a 2000 agreement that wasn’t part of her estate.
Cohen said the institute reluctantly agreed to sell or license its memorabilia collection to a museum or historical institute and give some of the proceeds to the relatives.
Though the settlement agreement called for Chase and Jefferson to bow out of the proceedings, Cohen said the pair refused to leave and kept billing the estate for fees.
Worse, Cohen said, the pair falsely accused him of divulging details of the confidential settlement agreement during a 2009 Michigan Court of Appeals hearing where the institute unsuccessfully challenged Chase and Jefferson’s request for $105,000 in fees.
Even though they weren’t parties to the settlement agreement and had no legal standing to do so, Cohen said Chase and Jefferson asked Burton to order the institute and Steele to forfeit Parks’ estate assets, including the memorabilia collection.
He said Burton agreed, even though confidentiality disputes were to be submitted to binding arbitration, not Burton, per the settlement agreement. Moreover, Cohen said Burton never allowed the institute to present witnesses, documents or defend itself at a trial before taking the institutes property.
Cohen said Chase and Jefferson never specifically indentified what Cohen supposedly disclosed or who heard it.
In early 2010, Cohen said, Burton approved a verbal request that the institute and Steele pay Chase and Jefferson $120,075 for an unexplained claim for fees. Cohen said no trial was ever held.
Cohen appealed all of the issues to the Michigan Court of Appeals and lost. In rulings in 2009 and 2011, the appellate court affirmed Burton’s decision to approve the legal fees and forfeit the institute’s and Steele’s share of the estate. It said the lawyers performed a valuable service to the estate.
“The record reveals that this case presented unique and delicate circumstances from the outset considering the fact that it involved the estate of a public figure of marked historical nature,” a three-member appeals panel said in 2009. It agreed with Burton’s observation that, thanks to Chase and Jefferson, a costly probate trial was averted and the estate’s assets were preserved.
The appeals panel said Chase and Jefferson alone were responsible for increasing the value of the estate – possibly by tenfold – by recognizing the value of Parks’ memorabilia collection and getting it into the hands of Guernsey’s Auctioneers in New York. It also agreed with Guernsey’s assessment that the institute had done a poor job of preserving some of the memorabilia and that “Steele and the institute were less than cooperative during the process.”
The appeals court also rejected Cohen’s claims that Burton had denied the institute and Steele’s constitutional due process by deciding issues without discovery, evidence, motions or trial.
Meanwhile, Guernsey’s Auctioneers in New York is trying to sell Parks’ memorabilia.
Its president, Arlan Ettinger, said Wednesday that the auction house wants to sell the entire collection to an institution that can care for and use it to educate and inspire future generations.
“In difficult economic times, very few museums are sitting around with huge bank accounts ready to spend,” he said. “That’s why this has been a long haul. In the end, I feel this will come to a happy conclusion that will make everyone proud.”