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Going to the Mat

When Bob Bennett stands against wrongdoers in the police and elsewhere, it’s a no-holds-barred street fight

Photo by Caroline Yang

Published in 2023 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine

By Trevor Kupfer on July 13, 2023


Though Bob Bennett has notched loads of impressive settlements and verdicts over the last 50 years, it’s difficult for him to rattle off figures. He doesn’t seek out the spotlight. He doesn’t savor courtroom oration like big opening or closing statements, and he’s not terribly fond of talking about himself. But mention his cases and his eyes light up.

“He has an inextinguishable fire to help those who have been wronged,” says his friend and Robins Kaplan colleague Phil Sieff. “He knows what these police departments have been doing to the disadvantaged for decades, and he knows how they’ll lie or do whatever they have to do to cover it up. And that fire has never gone out. He is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met.”

Bennett honed that competitive nature as a collegiate wrestler and puts it to use championing the underdog. “I hate bullies,” he says.

“The thing about Bob is he’ll try a case,” says Joe Flynn of Jardine, Logan & O’Brien, who has been across the aisle from Bennett dozens of times, including in the Philando Castile case. “If he’s not satisfied with what you’re offering, he’s not at all afraid to take the case to trial. You’ve got to be prepared always to go to the mat with him.”

“His style is: ‘I showed up today to have a street fight, so we’re going to have a street fight,’” adds Sieff. “He’ll say things to witnesses like, ‘Is that what you’re planning on telling a jury, what you just told me?’ He is no-holds barred with them, and I feel for the individual who wants to tangle with him.”

According to the Star Tribune, Minnesota paid more than $60.8 million in police misconduct cases between 2007 to 2017. More than half went to cases handled by Bennett’s firm. Of the 11 cases of $1 million or more, it won eight—and that’s not counting another $20 million notched against jails. That’s also just part of a career that includes cases involving Abbey Taylor, Justine Ruszczyk and the I-35W bridge collapse.

“He’s at the top of the list for civil rights litigators in this country,” says District Court Judge Mike Davis, who has presided over more than 20 of Bennett’s cases over the years. “Whenever I see his name on a case, I know whoever is being represented has the best.”

When we spoke in March, Bennett was working on two cases involving Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who murdered George Floyd in 2020. Three years earlier, Chauvin beat 14-year-old John Pope with a flashlight and kneeled on his neck for more than 16 minutes. The same year, he also knelt on the neck of Zoya Code, a 124-pound woman, for over 4 minutes, during which she pleaded for him to stop and said, “That’s how they kill Black people in America.”

Both of the incidents were documented on body cams—video that was in the department’s cloud evidence for nearly three years before Floyd’s murder, and nearly six before the public saw it. In April, settlements totaling nearly $9 million were finalized for the two cases.

“Every one of my clients, when we meet with them and ask what they want and the priority they want it in, they say, ‘One, I want them criminally charged. Two, I want them disciplined or fired. Three, I’d like this to never happen again. Four is money, because that’s the only way to have public accountability,’” Bennett says. “But the discipline never happens. You had all this call for reform, for change, for accountability, but nothing got passed. It’s just like with school shootings—you have an uproar, calls for change, and it all dies on the vine. That’s what happens with police reform in Minneapolis.”

After a beat, he continues: “But I’m hoping these cases raise awareness. It really would be nice to effect change.”

By the time Bennett graduated from Edina High School, he knew he wanted to be a lawyer. But he has no idea why. His mother was a New York native who worked as a secretary before becoming a homemaker to three children. Dad was a North Dakotan who, post-Navy, moved the family from New York to Montana to Michigan before putting down roots in the Crosstown area and becoming vice president at Target.

Bennett didn’t take debate or forensics, but he did wrestle in high school and at Notre Dame, walking onto the varsity team in the 158-pound weight class.

“I look upon law as kind of the intellectual extension of wrestling,” Bennett says. “There are winners. There are losers. If you’re determined, aggressive, truthful and get a reputation as someone who knows how to get to the courthouse and get things done, that’s a good thing.”

“He takes it on like a game—like a competition,” says daughter Katie Bennett, who is part of her father’s legal team, along with Andrew Noel, Marc Betinsky, Greta Wiessner and Angela Koob. “Over the years, he brought us with him and has allowed us to learn from him and grow into our own attorneys. We push each other to be the best.”

Before law school at U of M, Bennett took summer classes, including a Black history and literature course in 1972. “We read James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and it was a great class to take, given what I ended up doing,” he says. “I didn’t know that we were going to assert ourselves as the city of the worst policing in the history of policing.”

Bennett’s early legal forays as a clerk included a two-person firm handling workers’ compensation, patents, class actions and sports law cases. After getting exposure to securities, criminal defense and personal injury work at Delaney, Thompson & O’Rourke out of law school, he hung a shingle, taking on motor vehicle accident cases at first.

He took his first Section 1983 police misconduct case in 1980, before much precedent had been set. “Nobody wanted to sue the police,” Bennett says. “It was against the Mounds View Police Department, and the guy lost his kidney and fractured his wrist after they kicked him while he was handcuffed. Today, that would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe a million.” Back then? “It was $60,000.”

“Bob was suing cops long before it was fashionable to do so, long before he had the benefit of video or body cams or someone using their iPhone to record it,” says Sieff. “He was doing it when there was basically a piece of paper that the cops generated—some completely bogus report—and would lie openly and frequently during testimony. Somehow, some way, he figured out how to do this.”

By 1994, Bennett was setting the bar. In one case, “the jury found that the entire Minneapolis Police Department was deliberately indifferent to the use of excessive force,” he says. “It ended up being more than a million dollars, which was a big amount for that time.”

Fast-forward to 2017, when Justine Ruszczyk called 911 to report a possible assault, only to be shot and killed by officer Mohamed Noor when she approached his cruiser. Two years later, Bennett’s team got a $20 million settlement for the family—an historic amount. But the case, he says, showed “the blue wall of silence is alive and well in Minnesota. … [Hennepin County Attorney Mike] Freeman’s office had to impanel a grand jury to drag 35 or 40 police officers to come testify as to what they knew because they wouldn’t talk to the prosecutor. Where do the police get off not talking to the prosecutors? What world? What state? What county? They weren’t being charged with anything. These were just witnesses who wouldn’t come.”

It wasn’t the first time he was part of history. In 2007, he was tapped by Robins Kaplan partners Sieff and Chris Messerly, lead counsel for the pro bono consortium that represented the I-35W bridge collapse victims.

“I took the state bridge engineer’s deposition for a few days, and I took the head engineer of URS deposition, and those set the stage for the punitive damage motion, which set the stage for settling the case,” Bennett says. The end result was $54 million.

“A lot of lawyers like to get out of depositions,” he says. “I don’t. That’s where the cases are won or lost. I like doing experts a lot. I like doing happy fact witnesses, and I like doing witnesses that I think might lie to me. It’s like sport—especially the cops. Nobody lies like somebody who is expected to be believed.”

“He’s great at depositions,” Katie attests, “and for most of our Section 1983 cases that can be the make-or-break-it point. We need good depositions to defeat summary judgment.”

Cross-examination is another strength. “He’s one of the best that I’ve seen,” Flynn says. “He always manages to find the weaknesses and he’s very effective at exploiting them. If your client is not prepared, they’ll get destroyed.”

Sieff echoes that sentiment. “Some lawyers live for the opening, or especially the closing, which has always astounded me because, by that time, you’ve either won or lost the case,” he says. “Bob understands that brilliant oratory is fine, but juries know when someone is lying and that’s what he’s looking for.”

In addition to dozens of police misconduct cases, Bennett’s team has tackled several against correctional facilities. In 2008, they sued on behalf of an inmate with tuberculosis who passed it to 108 inmates and 42 guards after not receiving proper medical care. They settled the class, then tried the source case, which they won.

“You kind of have to try a big one every five years,” Bennett says, “just to let them know you’ll do it.”

“When you do a case like that, it takes a lot of energy, a lot of work, and a lot of perseverance,” says Judge Davis.

Bennett has plenty of fire to spare: “If you take somebody’s liberty away, they don’t get to go to the urgent care or the ER or a specialist. You rely entirely on the organization that’s incarcerating you. Inmates and detainees are the only people in the United States that have supposedly guaranteed health care and mental health care—until they hire MEnD Correctional Care. You can mark that up as one of the achievements I’m happy to help in: That’s now on a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.”

While the dates and dollar amounts involved in his list of cases are difficult for Bennett to recall, the clients aren’t: Duy Ngo, David Smith, Frank Baker, Dawn Marie Pfister, Soren Stevenson, Ethan Marks, Shawn Olthoff, Philando Castile. The list goes on.

As for which ones stand out most, Bennett takes a while to reflect. There are the big figure verdicts and settlements. There are the headline-grabbers. And then there are cases like the one he tried in 2017 on behalf of Desiree Collins, who was attacked by a K9 unit, which led St. Paul to change their policies on police dogs. But maybe the biggest was in 2007, when he represented the family of Abbey Taylor.

While in a kiddie pool at Minneapolis Country Club, Abbey sat on a drain that created a vacuum and pulled organs from her body. It required numerous surgeries, organ transplants, and many nights in hospitals. This was also the case that led Bennett’s daughter to follow in her dad’s footsteps.

“I remember where I was when it all happened—with some friends, still trying to figure out what exactly I was going to do after college,” Katie recalls. “I was watching [Dad] with the Taylor family and hearing stories about Abigail in the hospital, going, ‘I want to do this. I want to help.’ Seeing him work with the parents, the foundations, and making legislative changes … it felt like you could make a bigger impact.”

Bennett notched $8 million for the family and $2 million in charitable contributions. Then came changes to the American Red Cross lifesaving manual and the certified pool operator’s manual concerning lifeguard attentiveness at kiddie pools, as well as drain covers and requirements for closing pools if they’re dislodged. “The best [part],” he adds, “is we helped reignite the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool Safety Act. For Minnesota, and I think 29 other state legislatures who did a similar act, not a kid has drowned that way since.”

In this line of work, especially the Section 1983 cases, the fact patterns and offending officers tend to overlap. This makes it hard for Bennett not to feel as though the problem is systemic.

Katie agrees. “‘Oh, it’s just one bad apple’—you hear that frequently. And I think that people want to think that, but from what we’re seeing, it’s pretty far from the truth,” she says. “It’s ingrained, it’s how they train them, it’s how they bring them up through the ranks. If it wasn’t Chauvin, it would’ve been someone else.”

Bennett’s blood boils when he watches video of Chauvin’s attacks on Floyd, Pope or Code.

“He hits a 14-year-old kid with a metal flashlight with D-cell batteries in it. Then he chokes him out with a C-clamp, which has been prohibited in police work for, I don’t know, 20 years. And then he does a rear naked choke on him, and then kneels on his neck and back for 15.5 minutes. He’s a monster,” he says. “Then you see the videotape of the sergeant at the scene. Maybe a dozen police officers are just milling around the bedroom, not doing anything. No ‘Get off him.’ No taking your gun and saying, ‘If you don’t get off him, we’ll shoot you.’ Nothing. Try to square that with the ‘few bad apples’ argument.

“Not every cop will do that, but most of them won’t stop it, either,” Bennett adds. “Why is that? Because they want to be supported if their hour of need ever comes up. They expect other people to lie for them if need be.”

The change in attitudes of courts and jurors, however, has been promising, he says. “They used to come in, and if you had a blue uniform on, they believed you. Now, not so much.”

Body cameras have made a difference, too, although not as big as he hoped.

“I thought they would effect more change,” says Bennett. “Back when Justine’s shooting happened, the use of the body-worn cameras when required under policy was in the low teens. I want to say 17%. The amount of time it wasn’t being used, when it should have been, was about 85%. That’s flip-flopped, so that’s something.”

It can be hard for Bennett to turn off work mode when spending time with his family—which includes three kids and seven grandkids—or engaging in hobbies like biking or golfing.

“I think he calls at dinnertime every weeknight, maybe some weekends, because he had an idea,” Katie says. “The clients appreciate they’ve got someone who won’t stop fighting for them, but we sometimes get in trouble at family occasions because we can’t stop talking work. My husband and my mom end up chatting and we get the eye rolls from them.”

“He’s one of those guys who will talk about cases almost to the point where I’m like, ‘Bob, I was just asking how your day’s going,’” Sieff says with a laugh. “He loves it. That’s what keeps him going.”

This is even truer since 2020, when Sieff helped Bennett’s team move to Robins Kaplan, which gives them the opportunity to take on more cases. “The only thing I’m left to do, frankly, is my job and not attend to the organizational needs of a law firm,” Bennett says. “We’re looking out for what I hope is the greater good, so I work as much as I can.”

Eventually, he knows, the bulk of the cases will fall on others. “And I’m pretty sure that the Minneapolis Police Department will provide work for another generation of lawyers,” he adds.

“Bob is a rare breed that we are not going to see too many of going forward,” Sieff says. “This is a guy who truly pioneered an area of the law and has carried it forward. And it’s very difficult to give him enough credit for it.”

Bennett’s Big Fish

The one in the middle is the 11-pound walleye he caught in 1984 with his father. The 11 things pinned to it are duplicates of seven-figure checks he cashed from cases he’s won or settled.

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