The Greater Good
Bill Pentelovitch has been pushing Minnesota forward for nearly a half century
Published in 2019 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine
on July 11, 2019
Updated on April 24, 2020
Even Bill Pentelovitch’s losses get the job done.
In 2012, Pentelovitch was representing—pro bono—a coalition challenging a proposed constitutional amendment that would require Minnesota voters to present valid, state-issued IDs at the ballot box. Penetelovitch and his team from Maslon argued that the wording of the amendment on the ballot measure was misleading. The state supreme court disagreed, saying the coalition had not been able to demonstrate an error in the amendment language that would call for judicial intervention.
But the amendment—which, before the trial, had a 75 percent approval rating, according to one survey—was defeated at the polls, thanks in no small part to Pentelovitch’s advocacy, says Paul H. Anderson, one of the justices who heard the case.
Anderson ran into Pentelovitch the following year at an event where both were being honored for their legal work. “Bill told me, ‘I don’t know why I’m being honored,’” recalls Anderson, now retired. “I told him that even though he lost the battle, he won the war. He educated the public about what that proposed amendment was about, and it made all the difference in November.”
Over the course of his 45-year career, Pentelovitch, 69, has built one of the state’s most prominent business litigation practices, while also handling cases that have had a significant impact on civil liberties issues including racial equality and reproductive rights.
He’s dealt with just about every kind of dispute that can take place between business interests, on behalf of banks, medical device and drug makers, manufacturers, real estate and construction companies, and professional service firms.
How versatile is he? He’s been involved in litigation involving both the Minnesota Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium in 2014 and their previous home, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, 35 years prior. Pentelovitch represented the team in the Metrodome case, and the city of Minneapolis more recently. Both times he resolved the matter favorably for his clients.
“Bill is the amazing trial lawyer every client should want protecting their interests in high-stakes litigation,” says Haley Schaffer, a former Maslon attorney who’s now senior counsel at 3M. “He is also a remarkable person who dedicates a tremendous amount time to his community and pro bono clients. I am very lucky to have had Bill as a mentor and colleague.”
William Zane Pentelovitch—“Bill P.” to his colleagues—grew up in the Highland Park area of St. Paul, where his mother was a secretary and his father a traveling rep for a makers of men’s and children’s outerwear and maternity clothing.
Highland Park wasn’t then the tony enclave it is now; anchored by Ford’s Twin Cities Assembly Plant, it was a blue-collar neighborhood, and Pentelovitch embodied that work ethic while excelling at Highland Park Senior High School.
His mother’s first cousin was St. Paul lawyer Irving Gottlieb, who, among other things, was the first Jewish president of the Ramsey County Bar Association. “If I emulated anyone, it was Irv,” Pentelovitch recalls. “He was more like a grandfather to me than a cousin once removed.”
A turning point for Pentelovitch came during his undergrad years at the University of Minnesota, when he worked at the student-run Minnesota Daily. After a spell as a general assignment reporter and occasional columnist, he took over the op-ed page during his senior year. It was there that he learned a skill that would serve him well in front of juries: the ability to find a narrative that resonates.
“I had to balance liberal and conservative viewpoints on the opinion page,” he says. “That gave me experience in negotiating with people who had different points of view, and working with them to articulate those views.”
The gig also taught Pentelovitch that he didn’t like being stuck in a managerial hierarchy: “I like to call my own shots. And I thought being a lawyer would give me more of an opportunity to do that.”
At the University of Chicago Law School, Pentelovitch was influenced by Professor Owen M. Fiss, a leading authority on civil rights law. It was Fiss, in 1972, who arranged for Pentelovitch to meet with a partner at the scrappy 18-lawyer Minneapolis firm then called Maslon Kaplan Edelman Joseph & Borman.
Maslon was his first—and thus far, only—stop after law school. He was quickly taken under the wing of one of its namesakes, Hy Edelman.
“Hy was one of the last of the all-around lawyers,” Pentelovitch says. “He could read a real estate abstract and give a title opinion. He could negotiate a merger. He could write a will. He could try lawsuits.”
Mentor and protégé worked together until Edelman was well into his 80s. “Hy told me that if you do good work, you’ll never have to worry about having enough work to do.”
In an early case, Pentelovitch joined Maslon partner Chad Quaintance in representing the plaintiffs in a historic desegregation suit, Booker v. Special School District No. 1. The two lawyers filed a brief on behalf of Jeannette Booker, who sued the Minneapolis School District, arguing that it was intentionally segregating schools to the detriment of all schoolchildren. Pentelovitch and Quaintance wrote that, although school segregation in Minneapolis resulted in part from widespread racial discrimination in housing, a series of decisions by the district—such as funneling minority kids away from predominately white schools that had lots of empty chairs—were also to blame.
The court found in 1978 that the district had intentionally segregated its schools, and ordered the enactment of an integration plan.
“That case set me on the course of working on cases that had some social significance,” says Pentelovitch, who recently filed an amicus brief on behalf of the ACLU in the desegregation-related state Supreme Court case Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota.
A few years after Booker, the Minnesota Legislature passed a statute requiring the consent of both parents before minors could get an abortion. Maslon partner Mike Goldner asked Pentelovitch if he would represent Planned Parenthood to challenge the statute.
Eventually, the case was heard by the full Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the two-parent notification was unconstitutional, but that the judicial bypass was constitutional. That decision was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Pentelovitch went on to negotiate with civic authorities on behalf of protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention to protect their rights to freedom of speech and assembly; and he successfully represented former U.S. Senator Al Franken during the canvas of the contested 2008 senatorial election.
“Hell of a year,” says Pentelovitch with a laugh.
Pentelovitch’s business litigation work has been just as fruitful. In one significant case in the 1980s, he helped win the first major shareholder oppression case under the revised Minnesota Business Corporation Act, recovering more than $33 million for his clients.
In 2012, Pentelovitch worked with Medtronic on a $200 million patent royalty dispute brought against the company by DuPont. Working with a Medtronic in-house attorney, Chad Hanson, Pentelovitch and his team were able to get all the claims against Medtronic dismissed via summary judgment.
“Bill always finds a path to the endgame,” says Hanson. “Also, he’s one of the best on his feet in front of a judge. He’ll know the record and keep his cool when he’s getting grilled.”
Pentelovitch has also worked extensively in the areas of patent licenses and royalties, non-competes and trade secrets. In the past dozen years, he has successfully defended three different cases involving misappropriation of trade secrets in which the plaintiff sought to recover at least $100 million, and in each case the plaintiff walked away with nothing.
So how does he balance going to the mat for school children one day and for businesses fighting over hundreds of millions of dollars the next?
“They’re very different animals,” he says. “Most of the pro bono stuff I’ve done for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood has [had] a very broad-scale impact. There is huge satisfaction in getting those resolved favorably.
“The business litigation I do is almost always about money. I have represented a gamut of people from individuals to multinational corporations.”
The common factor? “I like to win,” Pentelovitch says.
His areas of expertise have converged in a couple of current cases.
Pentelovitch is representing a trustee in a case involving the attempted recovery of money swindled from the Wakpamni Lake Community Corp., an economic development arm owned by the tribal municipal government on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
And as Puerto Rico struggles to recover, he is representing the indenture trustee for more than $8.3 billion of defaulted bonds issued by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
“Years ago, Puerto Rico somehow got deleted from the federal bankruptcy code and was not in a position under federal law to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy reorganization,” he explains. “So in 2016, Congress passed an act for Puerto Rico and other territories so they could go into restructuring if they needed to.
“It’s a very challenging case, and it could lead to incredibly interesting litigation if it’s not resolved before that.”
One of Pentelovitch’s five children is still in high school. Visitors to his office don’t have to prod much to get him to grab a family photo and provide an update on his kids and their families. He also loves to cycle and kayak near his Minneapolis home, but “my hobby is practicing law,” he says.
And there are always more good fights to fight. He serves on the boards of the ACLU and other organizations, and he says that the current political climate in the United States means smart, tenacious legal representation will be needed.
“With the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, I think that everybody’s civil liberties are in some amount of danger,” he says. “The focus of people who do impact litigation right now has to be getting state supreme courts to adopt the kinds of protections that we were used to getting from the Warren Court.
“In Minnesota, we’re fortunate that historically, the Minnesota Supreme Court has interpreted the Minnesota constitution somewhat more broadly than the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the federal Constitution.”
As his mentor Edelman would say, Pentelovitch will never have to worry about having enough work to do.
“I always appreciated attorneys like Bill because they make the system work,” says Anderson. “He doesn’t mind taking some unpopular cases to show how the rule of law is supposed to work in a democratic society.”