Lawyer faces discipline in long-running Parks dispute

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — A legal fight continues to fester over the homemade coat Rosa Parks allegedly was wearing when she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus to a white passenger in 1955.

A lawyer in the long-running estate settlement case may face discipline for suggesting the judge presiding over the dispute allowed two close associates to benefit financially from the case. And questions have arisen over whether the garment — which some have valued at up to $1.3 million — even exists.

A panel of the Attorney Grievance Commission is scheduled Thursday to take up the question of whether Steven G. Cohen, a lawyer in the case, violated rules governing attorneys’ actions. He alleged Probate Judge Freddie Burton Jr. mishandled the estate and appointed two longtime “cronies” who looted the estate of the civil rights icon who lived in Detroit by charging unnecessary legal fees.

Cohen, the attorney for Steele, who was Parks’ caregiver, and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, sought to have Burton disqualified because of perceived mishandling of her estate. Burton, now assigned a separate breach of contract lawsuit against the heirs filed in 2013, refused to step down and the Michigan State Court Administrator’s Office asked Oakland Circuit Judge Elizabeth Pezzetti to review the matter.

In a Dec. 21 opinion, Pezzetti said she “found no basis for disqualification” of Burton.

“Plaintiff presented no evidence that Judge Burton has personal knowledge of disputed facts outside of the pending litigation, nor was there evidence presented of bias, partiality, force or coercion,” Pezzetti ruled.

As part of a Burton-supervised settlement of the 2006 estate, Steele and the Institute retained marketing and licensing rights regarding Parks but agreed to allow the heirs to obtain 20 percent of Parks estate. One condition included the return of the coat, which one niece, Susan D. McCauley of Lawrenceville, Georgia, allegedly possessed.

The coat controversy and its impact on Parks’ estate has bounced around in state courts for more than a decade, and includes claims by friends and caregivers; involved more than 17 attorneys; allegations of attorney and judicial misconduct; 14 filings with the Michigan Court of Appeals and one to the Michigan Supreme Court.

“It’s been a wild 10 years and there doesn’t seem to be an end to it,” said attorney Lawrence Pepper, who represents 15 of Parks’ relatives.

“My hope is we can get this final lawsuit resolved soon,” he said. “It is essentially over a coat that no longer exists. If it ever did.”

Family felt coerced in deal

Cohen, Steele’s attorney, said recovery of the coat, or funds paid to heirs, is key. The coat was appraised at $1.35 million — sight unseen. Pepper counters there is no proof Parks was even wearing a coat when she was arrested, and even if she was, it’s long gone.

“She is not wearing a coat in the photo of her at the police station being booked,” Pepper said. “And other photos, where she was sitting on a bus, are staged.”

Cohen said he wanted Burton to disqualify himself from the case because of statements Cohen obtained from Parks’ relatives who felt coerced into agreeing to a settlement involving the coat after 20 hours of negotiation behind closed doors in Burton’s chambers in February 2007.

“Back then they all agreed the coat would be given to the Institute, but now none of them recalls ever having any real knowledge of its whereabouts,” Cohen said. “They said they just went along with the settlement language because they felt coerced by Burton.

“Well, if they agreed to doing something they had no intention of completing that constitutes breach of contract.”

According to court records, Cohen claimed Burton improperly replaced Steele and former Judge Adam Shakoor — both initially named by Parks to be her trustees after her death — with Burton’s own “longtime court cronies John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr.”

In 2010, Burton awarded Chase and Jefferson more than $243,000 in administrative fees — about two-thirds of her estate.

“They obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars for doing nothing,” Cohen said. “Those were funds taken from my client.”

Pepper said his clients had no problem with Chase and Jefferson and believes they acted properly and earned their fees.

Niece said she wore coat

The existence of the coat — however questionable — has some basis, according to court records.

In an affidavit taken by Pepper, McCauley said while she attended Michigan State University from 1974-79, Parks “offered me a coat she had personally sewn.” McCauley said Parks, a seamstress, had said she had worn it when she was arrested.

McCauley said she moved to Georgia in 1980 and remembered the coat was in a closet until 1988, when she learned the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta had a Rosa Parks room and she intended to donate it. She can’t remember if she did and the center has no records of receiving such a gift.

McCauley said she lost track of the coat when she moved to California in 1989 and put many of her possessions in storage. She recalled wearing the coat for several winters before moving to California, according to court records, but its lining had worn out and she had to replace it.

“I always viewed it as a practical article of clothing and never considered it to be of historical significance,” McCauley said in an August 2008 affidavit.

In a June 26, 2015, statement, McCauley claimed she had never heard the condition regarding the return of the coat, but recalled Burton “pressuring me to find the coat.”

McCauley could not be reached for comment.

Many items bought in ’14

Much of Parks’ artifacts and collection, including personal papers, were bought for $4.5 million in 2014 from a New York auction house by businessman Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

Proceeds from that sale have been disbursed to Steele, the Institute and Parks’ heirs, Cohen said.

Parks and her husband never had any children but moved to Detroit where her brother, Sylvester McCauley, had 13 children who became her heirs.

When asked about the missing coat, one of Parks’ nieces, Sheila McCauley Keys, laughed and said “everyone is always asking about that. Like we’ve conspired to hide it or something. I really don’t know what anyone is talking about.”

“She did give me me one of her coats once — you know what was printed inside it? ‘J.L. Hudson’ ” — the popular longtime Detroit department store.

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