Care for the Caregivers

Civil defense attorney Deborah Eckland is any in-home day care provider’s best friend

Published in 2014 Minnesota Super Lawyers — August 2014

Photo by: Richard Fleischman

In some ways, Deborah Eckland is still the Southern Baptist girl she was raised as at heart, sprinkling her speech with y’alls and fixin’ tos. Raised on a dairy farm in Gillsburg, Miss.—a small, unincorporated community where the 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crashed—part of Eckland wishes she could own a little house on a farm with chickens and pigs.

Then there’s the other Eckland: the seasoned litigator who lives in Edina, wants her Starbucks close by and spends her days in an office in Riverplace overlooking downtown Minneapolis. This Eckland heads her own law firm, Goetz & Eckland, and was invited to Harvard’s Kennedy School last year to participate in a program on women and power.

“I’m from little bitty tiny Mississippi, 33 people in my graduating class—who would have ever thought I’d be at Harvard?” Eckland says with a laugh.

In truth, the two sides of Eckland are completely interwoven, creating a woman who is both charming and tough, fair yet ready for a fight, faith-driven and family-minded. “My parents instilled in me a tremendous work ethic,” says Eckland. “And I will never forget the advice my brother-in-law gave me when I started my first clerking job at his firm: ‘Whatever the partner tells you to do, you do. Whether it’s writing a brief or picking up his dry cleaning or emptying the trash, you are not too good to do whatever work is necessary to get the job done.’”

She’s been getting the job done for 26 years now, starting with her first legal job in New Orleans and then moving to Rider Bennett after marrying a Faegre & Benson lawyer, Jeff Eckland. “I’ll never forget when my former partner Dave Fitzgerald, at Rider Bennett, made me write and rewrite a summary judgment motion six times,” she says. “I thought it was hopeless. But by the sixth time, I got it back with a note in Dave’s beautiful ink-pen longhand: ‘Excellent work product.’”

It was at Rider Bennett that Eckland developed a unique niche: day care defense. She started defending a few in-home day care providers—cases that involved things like a kid getting his toes cut off by a lawn mower—and soon she discovered the complex world of administrative law for licensed day care providers. “Because of my doing the insurance defense part, I started being asked to do the licensing hearings and the maltreatment hearings and all those things that take place in that administrative law venue,” she says. “It’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of my practice.”

For even the best day care providers, things can go wrong in an instant. An accident happens, allegations are made and suddenly they’re embroiled in an administrative nightmare. “We all know that county services are understaffed, underpaid, overworked, all those things. Something will happen and they may do what they call an investigation, but then they make a judgment and it’s done,” says Eckland. That often leaves the provider with a revoked license, his or her business shut down, scraping together money to hire a lawyer to navigate what can amount to years of hearings, stress and lost income.

“What I found is 90 percent of the day care providers who have severe negative licensing actions taken against them shouldn’t have,” says Eckland, who had three small children when she started handling day care cases.

There was the 2004 case of an Eagan woman who’d been operating a day care for more than 25 years. One day during naptime, a 2-year-old in her care badly bit an 8-month-old on the nose. “They revoked her license. There was no warning, there was no prior biting, there was nothing to give her a heads up that something like that could happen,” says Eckland. The case went to hearing, and the determination of Eckland’s client’s neglect was reversed, but it took two years to reach its resolution.

Another memorable case involved a day care provider in rural Minnesota. On a clear fall day, a local mom drove her SUV to pick up her children from day care. As she neared, she saw kids playing in the yard and turned, hitting an oncoming motorcyclist, who later sued the provider, alleging she was negligent in letting kids play in the yard, distracting motorists. Eckland, who defended the day care provider, moved for summary judgment. “In that case, we argued as a day care provider with kids in your front yard, you don’t have a duty to motorists to watch what you’re doing,” she says. The district court and Court of Appeals agreed, and the case was dismissed.

“I get a lot of satisfaction representing these ladies; I’ve had a couple clients who have been taking care of kids for 25, 30 years,” says Eckland. “These women are near and dear to my heart overall. It’s my favorite part of what I’m doing these days.”

She’s had a number of big cases—including a trial win against Wall Drug Store in a prominent products liability case—but her biggest has to be Buscher v. Montag Development Inc., in which the owner of a massive Minnetonka home claimed a general contractor, Eckland’s client, caused $3.5 million in damages during a remodel. The backstory played out like a legal thriller, including improper contacting of a witness, false affidavits and buried evidence containing key information related to the statute of limitations for the claim. The case ultimately went to the state Court of Appeals on issues of Rule 11 sanctions against the plaintiff’s Chicago lawyers. “When it was all said and done, they wound up paying my client about $100,000 in costs, and they had to pay a penalty into court,” she says.

Minneapolis attorney Garth J. Unke, who represented a co-defendant in that case, describes Eckland as the “laboring oar” in their success. “She’s a very good trial lawyer; she thinks well on her feet,” he says. “She’s fair. She evaluates her cases well, makes a fair settlement offer if warranted, and if her opponent isn’t willing to take the money, she will try the case. I think that’s probably an earmark of a good defense lawyer.”

Fairness and integrity are important to Eckland. “[I’ve] learned that no matter what you do as an attorney, the only thing you really have that matters is your reputation,” she says. “Every letter, every brief, every phone call, every court appearance, every interaction with client, counsel and court—if it were held up to a spotlight, would you be proud of it?”

Photo by: Richard Fleischman

Photo by: Richard Fleischman

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