John Harper III: Win-Win Litigation

John Harper III
2024 Feature Nominations

In 1977, the senior partner of a small, boutique Minneapolis law firm walked into his first year corporate associate’s office and advised “Larry (the firm’s only litigator) has left the firm. You are now the firm’s litigator.” With that, the firm’s litigation files were placed on John Harper’s desk and his business litigation career was launched.

John Harper III, or “Jack” as he is known to most of his colleagues and friends, is a shareholder, director, and a chair of the business litigation department of Messerli & Kramer P.A., a 50-lawyer firm with offices in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Plymouth and Milwaukee. Harper, Terry Wagener, and associates Benjamin Court and Molly Hamilton transitioned their practice to Messerli & Kramer in 2009.

“Joining Messerli & Kramer allowed us the opportunity to better service our clients, with its strong real estate, banking, lobbying, estate planning, corporate, and family law practice groups. Also, we joined a great team of litigators.”

For the past thirty-five years, Harper has represented clients across the country and is licensed in the state courts of Minnesota and Wisconsin and the federal courts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Nebraska, and the U.S. Supreme Court. He has litigated cases in over 25 states.

“Over the course of my career I have been blessed with the opportunity to represent clients and handle all types of cases from personal injury to business owner/shareholder disputes to fraud, construction defect, product liability, and ‘yes,’ even some divorce cases in the early days of my practice.”

Harper’s clientele is diverse, ranging from fortune 500 companies to small and medium size businesses. Regardless of the client, his approach is the same; namely, “we find practical business solutions to our clients’ litigation issues.”

Harper’s perspective is that, “if you are mindful of your client’s business objectives and financial constraints, then you can make the litigation process a win-win proposition.”

As a shareholder, director, and chair of Messerli & Kramer’s business litigation department, Harper works collaboratively with his team to service the firm’s clients, bringing exceptional insight and legal knowledge to obtain positive and creative solutions to complex business litigation.

In the past few years, much of Harper’s time has been spent representing clients in cases involving shareholder derivative suits, minority shareholder disputes, Ponzi scheme claw back, and fraud. One particular case that has received a great deal of notoriety involved Harper and his Messerli & Kramer team representing a group of individuals who had invested in the Trevor Cook Ponzi scheme (Phillips, et al. v. Trevor Cook, Oxford Global Advisors, et al.).

This case started in 2009, with Harper initially representing nine Ohio plaintiffs. Collaborating with Ohio counsel, a lawsuit was commenced in Minnesota federal district court seeking the return of approximately $5,000,000 of clients’ funds invested in a currency arbitrage trading program. Harper and Molly Hamilton obtained temporary restraining orders freezing the assets of Trevor Cook, his entities and accomplices. Quickly thereafter, their clients expanded to 135 individuals from all over the country who had invested over $35,000,000 in this Ponzi scheme.

The temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions obtained by Harper and his team subsequently led to SEC and CFTC enforcement actions, and the appointment of a receiver over Trevor Cook and his associates and associated entities on behalf of approximately 700 investors who invested over $190,000,000 in the scam. In the past year, the five individual defendants, Trevor Cook, Jason “Bo” Alan Beckman, Christopher Pettengill, Gerald Durand, and Patrick Kiley, have been either tried and convicted or plead guilty to federal crimes. Trevor Cook is currently serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison and the others await sentencing.

Harper described the Trevor Cook Ponzi scheme as, “a tragic story of the most wonderful, salt of the earth people investing, in many instances their life savings in a currency arbitrage trading program that was ‘too good to be true.’ Sadly, it was a scam. We truly wish we could have recovered all of the invested funds. However, by the time we got involved most of the monies had been squandered by the defendants. Our solace is that we were able to expose the Ponzi scheme, freeze the assets of the defendants, and hopefully prevented hundreds of other potential investors from losing their life savings.”

Most of the cases litigators handle do not receive the level of publicity of the Trevor Cook case. Indeed, most of the cases Harper has handled over the years, like other business litigators, are matters that never see the light of day to the general public. “Most of our efforts on behalf of our clients result in resolution of business disputes before or shortly after a lawsuit is commenced and frequently are resolved confidentially. Such is the life and routine of a business litigator.”

Whether the cases are large dollar, high profile, or smaller private business disputes, Harper’s objective is the same—be vigorous advocates for clients and obtain, via amicable resolution, arbitration, or trial, a positive business solution within his client’s economic constraints. Over the years, Harper has been successful on behalf of hundreds of clients achieving this objective.

While the objective is always the same, there are times in a business litigator’s career where one gets the opportunity to be involved in the proverbial “life or death” case.

As Harper explained, “These are the cases that get your juices flowing,” and Harper has been fortunate to be involved in a number of them over the years. One particular case that Harper and Terry Wagener, a fellow Messerli & Kramer shareholder, tried a number of years ago against a couple of highly skilled lawyers, involved the sale of a business and brokerage fees related thereto. Harper and Terry represented the defendant business owner who had built a successful welding company. The business owner attempted to sell the company to an investor which, sales for various reasons, fell through at the eleventh hour. The plaintiff investor and business broker sued Harper’s client claiming damages in excess of $9,000,000. After a month-long jury trial, a Hennepin County jury returned a defense verdict. “When you are engaged in battle with great lawyers, trying a hotly contested case to a jury and know that the outcome could be the financial ruin of your client and the loss of his business which he took a lifetime to build, it certainly gets your attention. It is always great to win a case, but it was priceless to look into the eyes of our clients as the verdict was read and know that you had saved their business and financial life.”

Despite his many successes in litigation, Harper is realistic about and cognizant of the challenging nature of the practice of law in these difficult economic times, particularly with respect to complex business litigation. Harper notes that the advent of electronic discovery and the economy in the last few years has had a dampening effect on the enthusiasm and wherewithal of clients to engage in protracted and expensive litigation.

“To succeed in this environment, it is incumbent upon our firm to be proactive in providing effective and efficient ways to manage litigation, collaborate with our clients, and in-house counsel and be good stewards of our clients’ financial resources.”

“When our group joined Messerli & Kramer’s three years ago, we endeavored to build a litigation department that would deliver the highest quality work product at competitive rates, utilizing advanced technology and an outstanding support team. In this regard I am so fortunate to work with a highly skilled group of professionals. Our Messerli & Kramer associates, Ben Court, Kristy Saum, Molly Hamilton, Dawn Isackson, and Kevin O’Rourke are second to none and our paralegal and administrative assistants are equally top drawer.”

As most experienced litigators recite, the success that they enjoy is largely dependent on the quality of the associates, paralegals, and administrative staff with whom they work and Harper confirms, “for whatever success I have enjoyed over the years the majority of it is attributable to the team of folks with whom I have had the pleasure to work.”

Harper is proud of the fact that, notwithstanding the economic downturn, Messerli & Kramer has prospered. “We consider ourselves fortunate to be busy. We are currently representing clients in a variety of cases across the country, including shareholder derivative claims, minority shareholder disputes, bankruptcy adversary proceedings, and claw back litigation.”

Notwithstanding their success, Harper and his team do not stand on their laurels. “Our mantra is that we service our clients ‘24- 7’ and we take this commitment seriously. Clients’ issues do not solely arise during normal business hours. We believe that we need to be available to our clients around the clock. Technology allows us to be accessible and to deal with client issues whenever they arise. We know our clients want to be able to download their problems/issues and get them off of their plate and on to ours whenever they arise and our clients are appreciative of the fact that they can reach us any time, any day.”

Harper will turn 62 in January and is routinely asked, “when are you going to retire?”

To Harper, the answer is simple: “I am blessed to have a wonderful, supportive wife and family. My wife, Debbie was a paralegal, and truly understands the nature of the practice of law and that of a litigator. She is the backbone of my extended team. In short, I love what I do, and am truly fortunate to have the opportunities to work on great cases with wonderful clients and a terrific team at Messerli & Kramer. As long as it continues this way and I have my health, I hope to keep practicing and trust my Messerli & Kramer partners will keep the doors open and the light on in my office for me.”

Katherine Bishop

Katherine Bishop is a staff writer for Attorney at Law Magazine. She has been a writer with the publication for more than four years. She also writes for Real Estate Agent Magazine.

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