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Settle v. Bonner

May 5, 2010

JOHN R. STEELE, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLEE,
v.
HAZEL BONNER, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SEVENTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT PENNINGTON COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA, HONORABLE JAMES W. ANDERSON Retired Circuit Judge.

Per curiam.

CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON MARCH 22, 2010

[¶1.] John Steele (Steele), as chairman of the Consumer Protection Committee of the State Bar of South Dakota, sought a permanent injunction enjoining Hazel Bonner (Bonner) from practicing law without a license. After a court trial, the court granted Steele's permanent injunction, permanently enjoining Bonner from certain specified conduct relating to the practice of law.

FACTS

[¶2.] Bonner is a 1994 graduate of the University of South Dakota School of Law. She has never successfully passed the South Dakota bar exam (or any other bar exam), nor has she been admitted to the practice of law by this Court. Thus, Bonner has never been qualified to become a member of the State Bar of South Dakota.

[¶3.] In October of 2002, Thomas C. Barnett, Jr. (Barnett), Secretary/Treasurer of the State Bar of South Dakota, received a formal complaint from Jeremiah Davis, an attorney with the Pennington County Public Defender's office, regarding Bonner. Davis' complaint alleged Bonner was engaging in the practice of law without a license. The letter discussed two situations in which Bonner had interfered with Davis' representation of criminal defendants.

[¶4.] The first incident concerned Bonner's contact with a young man being housed at Pennington County jail who was charged with homicide. Against the advice of Davis, the young man's appointed attorney, the young man talked with Bonner, who wrote a newspaper article about the young man. Davis had been informed Bonner suggested the young man sign a "power of attorney" which would ostensibly protect Bonner's conversations with the young man by the attorney/client privilege. Davis was concerned the communication the young man had with Bonner may be used against the young man at trial.

[¶5.] The second incident concerned Bonner's involvement in a criminal child abuse case. When Davis appeared for the preliminary hearing on behalf of his clients, the magistrate informed Davis an exhibit had been presented to the court on behalf of his client. Davis had not prepared the exhibit or even knew of the exhibit's existence. This exhibit was entitled "a report to the court concerning three children" submitted by "Hazel Bonner, independent investigator and advocate of Rapid City South Dakota, also an associate professor of Sociology at Oglala Lakota College." The headings of that portion of the "report" entitled "My Findings" include: "Best efforts to reunite the family are required in this case," and "Placement in this case cannot be considered the least restrictive environment." The "report" also included a section entitled "[a] plea offer from the prosecutor." This section disclosed plea negotiations and an allegation that Davis told his client "if she went to trial she would be convicted because she is Indian, juries in Rapid City are white and discriminate against Indians." The final sentence of the document reads: "If that doesn't happen, the parents have asked me to relay to the court that they are petitioning the court to transfer the proceedings to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in accordance with 25 USC § 1911(b)."

[¶6.] Later in October 2002, a small claims complaint was filed against Bonner alleging Bonner had answered Season Sunhawk's ad for legal work and then had not performed the work. In her answer to the complaint, Bonner alleged:

I told him I had done 3 hours of research. I had written a memo on At-Will Employment in South Dakota. I had determined that Wal Mart did not need to give him notice of termination or a reason for termination and a chance to remedy any substandard job performance and that the termination was probably legal under South Dakota law unless it was retaliatory or discriminatory. He was claiming it was discriminatory.

At trial Bonner testified she gave this information to Sunhawk. Sunhawk received a default judgment against Bonner in that action.

[¶7.] In January 2003, Barnett received correspondence from the administrative officer for the federal public defender regarding a problem their office had with Bonner. The essence of the correspondence and accompanying attachments was that Bonner had meddled in a case, given advice, and attempted to file pleadings with the United States Federal District Court.

[¶8.] In 2008 Bonner attempted to represent a veteran in a benefit appeal. The veteran was being represented by a non-attorney advocate approved by the American Legion. This advocate testified at trial that Bonner had questioned her handling of the appeal, and that Bonner had filed paperwork which ultimately delayed the veteran's benefits. Most disconcerting to the advocate was Bonner's initial representation of herself as an attorney.

[¶9.] Bonner maintains she did not engage in the practice of law, but merely assisted individuals whose attorneys had failed them.

[¶10.] After the trial on this permanent injunction matter, the trial court found that Bonner had engaged in the practice of law without a license, and entered an injunction permanently prohibiting certain conduct. Bonner appeals.

STANDARD

[¶11.] This Court's review of a decision regarding injunctive relief is well settled:

Granting or denying an injunction rests in the sound discretion of the trial court. We will not disturb a ruling on injunctive relief unless we find an abuse of discretion.

An abuse of discretion can simply be an error of law or it might denote a discretion exercised to an unjustified purpose, against reason and evidence.

In doing so, we review the trial court's findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard, but we give no deference to the trial court's conclusions of law.

Halls v. White, 2006 SD 47, ¶ 4, 715 NW2d 577, 579 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

[ΒΆ12.] SDCL 16-18-1 specifically authorizes injunctions to prohibit individuals from practicing law without a ...


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