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Lawyer claims fees drained Rosa Parks' estate

By Victoria Advocate
July 21, 2011 at 2:21 a.m.
Updated July 24, 2011 at 2:24 a.m.


DETROIT (AP) - A lawyer involved in a long-running dispute over the estate of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks claims that a judge allowed two other lawyers to pile up fees that ate away about two-thirds of the estate's $372,000 cash value.

The financial condition of Parks' estate was outlined in a recent filing with the Michigan Supreme Court by Steven Cohen, who represents Parks' caretaker Elaine Steele and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, the Detroit Free Press reported Thursday.

"Since Mrs. Parks' death ... 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.

The legal filing contends that Wayne County Probate Judge Freddie Burton Jr. allowed lawyers John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr. to get fees that drained nearly $243,000 from the estate.

Messages seeking comment were left Thursday morning by The Associated Press for Chase and Jefferson.

Parks left virtually all her estate to the institute, which was founded to teach young people leadership and character development. The dispute involves Parks' relatives and what share of Parks' estate they should get.

Cohen wants the state Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court decision that stood behind Burton's handling of the case. Michigan Court of Appeals also credited Chase and Jefferson for increasing the value of the estate by recognizing the worth of Parks' memorabilia, which is expected to be sold at auction.

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."

Lawrence Pepper, a lawyer 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.

Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man. Parks died in 2005 at age 92.

In the filing, Cohen also claims that the coat Parks wore on the bus ride is missing. He said it would be a valuable part of Parks' memorabilia collection.

Pepper said Parks gave it to one of her nieces who was attending college in the '60s or '70s and didn't have the coat. He said the niece wore it and eventually got rid of it.

"She didn't realize it had any value," Pepper said.

Guernsey's Auctioneers in New York is trying to sell Parks' memorabilia. Its president, Arlan Ettinger, said it wants to sell the 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."

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Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com

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