By Michael Volpe
A divorce lawyer was detained, forced to represent her client restrained in a wheelchair and tortured with sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation without being charged, according to a new civil-rights lawsuit that has hit the courts in Minnesota.
The circumstances of the case are so egregious, the plaintiff’s attorney first was in disbelief they could happen in America, but eventually was convinced.
Plaintiff Michelle MacDonald Shimota is being represented by Tayari Garrett and Nathan Busch in her civil action. Busch told WND the claim was so extreme, he initially didn’t believe her.
“This is the first time I’d heard of such a case,” Busch said. “This is the United States. Things like that don’t happen here.”
But Busch said following a face-to-face meeting and an examination of the evidence, he believed his client.
“She’s not lying; this woman is telling the truth,” Busch said.
MacDonald Shimota, a divorce lawyer and activist, had filed a federal lawsuit against Judge David Knutson regarding a divorce case involving her client, Sandra Sue Grazzini-Rucki, on Sept. 11, 2013.
In conjunction with the lawsuit, MacDonald Shimota asked Knutson to recuse himself from Grazzini-Rucki’s divorce case, which he refused to do.
The next day, MacDonald Shimota was summoned to Knutson’s courtroom for a hearing. During a break, several members of the Dakota, Minnesota, County sheriff’s office detained her, stripped her of her glasses, jewelry and shoes, and strapped her to a wheelchair, according to a lawsuit filed by MacDonald on March 25, 2015.
MacDonald Shimota then was wheeled back into court still strapped to the chair, where her notes and cell phone had been removed, and Knutson forced her to continue the proceedings while still restrained, the lawsuit continues.
After the proceedings were over, MacDonald Shimota was wheeled back into the holding area where, the lawsuit charges, the sheriff’s office engaged in seven of the internationally recognized forms of torture: sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement/isolation, temperature extremes, sensory bombardment and psychological techniques.
MacDonald Shimota spent hours in a cell alone, slept on a freezing floor, and was repeatedly awakened due to noise made by members of the Dakota County sheriff’s department, the lawsuit alleges.
She was finally released after spending more than 24 hours behind bars without being charged, booked or allowed a phone call, the filing complains.
Tim Leslie, the Dakota County sheriff, confirmed his office recently received the lawsuit. But he declined to comment formally to WND, stating: “On the advice of my counsel, I cannot comment on pending litigation, but we’re taking it seriously.”
Leslie confirmed to WND that no members of the sheriff’s department implicated in the lawsuit have been reprimanded by his office.
The lawsuit alleges that nearly a month after her detention, MacDonald finally was charged with contempt of court, but those charges were dismissed by a visiting judge on April 4, 2014, as being without probable cause, according to the lawsuit.
“Our system has a little thing called the Constitution, and in that Constitution there are things called rights,” Busch explained. “When you have a situation where an attorney can’t represent her client without being wheeled in a wheelchair, there’s something very wrong.”
While Knutson’s name is on the case, and he’s been served with the lawsuit, that’s mainly because critical evidence, recordings from the courtroom and holding area, may be in his possession.
Judges, due to longstanding Supreme Court precedent, enjoy nearly unlimited immunity from civil prosecution, a standard begun in the landmark case of Stump v. Sparkman in which a judge still was deemed to be immune from a civil suit even though he forced a woman to undergo a procedure which removed her ability to reproduce without her knowledge or consent.
“The judge is not involved in the case, and it’s not entirely because of judicial immunity,” Busch said.
He declined to explain further because any the explanation would reveal critical trial strategy, but he did leave open the possibility that Knutson could be added to the suit later.
MacDonald Shimota’s client, Sandra Sue Grazzini-Rucki, said MacDonald agreed to represent her pro bono after the two met at a family court reform meeting.
Grazzini-Rucki said she was unceremoniously forced out of her home by an ex-parte ruling from Knutson and told not to associate with anyone she knew.
“I am still to this date not allowed to have contact with anyone I’d known to that date,” Grazzini-Rucki said.
After allegedly having her detained and locked up in a wheelchair, Knutson filed a complaint against MacDonald Shimota with the Minnesota Bar Association, arguing that she provided her client with ineffective counsel on Sept. 12, 2013, when she was forced to represent her strapped in a wheelchair, without notes, glasses or her cell phone.
But Grazzini-Rucki said that wasn’t MacDonald-Shimota’s fault.
“She was not given the opportunity to give effective counsel,” she said.
Beau Berentson, the director of communications for the Minnesota Judicial branch, provided WND with a transcript from Sept. 12, 2013, along with Knutson’s finding of fact from Grazzini-Rucki’s divorce after a message was left in Knutson’s chambers.
But the transcript stops as a break is called and before MacDonald was detained and only picks up again after MacDonald has been wheeled back into the courtroom.
Berentson did not provide any documentation that explained the nature of her detainment, and Knutson declined to comment besides providing these documents.
Busch told WND that his client will be seeking $7.5 million in damages.
MacDonald-Shimota ran for the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2014 endorsed by the Republican Party but lost, getting 46.5 percent of the vote.