U.S. Court of Appeals Affirms Denial of Lawsuit Regarding $3 Million Estate to Homeless Individual

Katherine Black sued two defendants for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Ultimately, the trial did not go as she had expected; the jury rejected her claims.

On appeal, she argued that her trial was riddled with errors. She requested that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit overturn the jury’s verdict for several reasons. However, the court of appeals found there were no errors that warranted a reversal; therefore her request for a new trial was denied.

In 2012, the plaintiff, Katherine Black, and her husband Bernard were professors at Northwestern University School of Law.  In 2012, Bernard’s mother passed away and left behind roughly a $3 million estate. The Blacks expected to inherit 1/3 of that estate. As it turned out, Bernard’s mother cut them out of their will and left virtually the entire estate to Bernard’s homeless and mentally ill sister, Joanne, who lived in Denver. In late 2012, Bernard had himself appointed Joanne’s conservator and then worked to redirect much of her inheritance to himself and his wife.

In the meantime, Bernard’s cousin and defendant, Cherie Wrigley, sought to locate Joanne and contacted Esaun Pinto, Joanne’s friend and private investigator, to search for her and find her. Pinto was successful.

Joanne relocated to New York in 2013. Upon her return, Bernard filed suit in New York state court seeking to be appointed guardian of Joanne’s property. Wrigley filed a cross-petition to be appointed Joanne’s guardian instead.

Back in Denver, Joanne’s guardian ad litem, Gayle Young, discovered that Bernard had diverted much of Joanne’s inheritance to himself. As a result, Young hired defendant Pamela Kerr, a forensic accountant to investigate Bernard as well as Pinto. Pinto had served as Joanne’s representative payee and had been withdrawing funds from her account.

On April 2, 2015, the Denver probate court held a hearing that became contentious. That day, the court entered an order suspending Bernard as Joanne’s conservator and stating that “Pinto shall provide a complete accounting with documentation of all funds that were held under his control to Ms. Kerr” so that she could investigate.

The Denver probate court ultimately resolved the dispute against Bernard and found that he committed civil theft by stealing $1.5 million from Joanne. After trebling damages under Colorado law, the trial court entered a $5.5 million judgment, which was affirmed on appeal in Colorado.

The New York guardianship proceedings continued. On Jan. 7, 2016, Katherine submitted a 23-page letter to the New York court laying out her contentions regarding Joanne and the Denver probate case. Katherine’s letter was on Northwestern University letterhead and, among other things, alleged “theft and misappropriation of Joanne’s assets by Pinto” and asserted that “the Colorado Judge Found Those Allegations Credible Enough to Authorize an Investigation of Pinto’s Conduct by a Forensic Accountant.”

Soon afterward, Wrigley called the deans of Northwestern’s law and business schools (Bernard worked at both) to complain that Katherine had used Northwestern letterhead to make a false statement to the court. Kerr also called the law school dean and sent a draft letter to Wrigley that she had prepared for the dean.In pertinent part, Kerr’s letter quoted the above portion of Katherine’s letter and asserted that this claim was “100% false” and “completely false.”

Kerr did not send this letter to Northwestern. But Wrigley did send the draft letter, which Wrigley attached to an ethics complaint that she had submitted to Northwestern. Wrigley’s complaint also asserted that Katherine was “using [Northwestern’s] letterhead to slander people and fight a personal case.”

On Jan. 6, 2017, Katherine sued Wrigley and Kerr in the federal district court in Chicago. She brought claims against both of them for defamation (based on the various statements submitted to Northwestern) and against Wrigley for intentional infliction of emotional distress (based on the threat she had allegedly made to Katherine).

The trial began in August 2019 and lasted about a week. Nothing went as Katherine had hoped especially on Friday, which was supposed to be the day of closing arguments, when Katherine’s trial counsel informed the court he had just been “advised by [Katherine] that she elects to present her own closing argument.” The court denied her request because Katherine was “not a pro se litigant” and was “presented by counsel.”

The court rejected Katherine’s intent to fire her attorney and present her own closing argument and accused Katherine of “gamesmanship,” stating that it could not “trust [her] to follow the rules” based on her performance as a witness.

Katherine’s lawyer claimed to be physically ill and the judge then granted a continuance.

Ultimately, the jury rejected Katherine’s claims. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting challenges to the court’s evidentiary decisions, including overruling Katherine’s objections at closing arguments and to jury instructions.

Black v. Wrigley, 20-2656, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, May 10, 2021.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling probate litigation, commercial litigation, medical malpractice lawsuits and catastrophic injury lawsuits for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 45 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Warrenville, Bolingbrook, Romeoville, Joliet, Waukegan, Inverness, Lake Zurich, South Holland, Blue Island, Chicago (Calumet Heights, Roscoe Village, Beverly, Lakeview, Lincoln Square, Garfield Park, Washington Park, Jefferson Park, Irving Park), Zion, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, Highwood and Olympia Fields, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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