By Gretchen Schuldt
The city of Milwaukee ran straight into the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law when two Municipal Court judges tried to shortcut and back channel their way into firing JusticePoint, the longtime operator of a successful program to divert impoverished defendants from forfeitures and fees they cannot pay.
Assistant City Attorney Kathryn Block told a Common Council committee that Municipal Court Judges Phil Chavez and Valarie Hill had legitimate cause to fire JusticePoint, but declined to say what that cause was. The two judges did not consult the city's third judge, Molly Gena, on the matter or even tell her firing the agency was under consideration.
The city chose not to fire JusticePoint for cause under its contract with the agency, which would have required notice and an opportunity to cure the practices. Instead, the city terminated JusticePoint for the city's convenience without telling the agency or the public exactly what it was that JusticePoint did wrong.
That decision prompted JusticePoint to take the city to Milwaukee County Circuit Court, alleging in a lawsuit that the city's manipulations violated the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law. Circuit Judge Hannah Dugan ruled that JusticePoint had a reasonable chance of prevailing on the merits and issued a temporary restraining order blocking the contract termination until Oct. 5, when another hearing will be held. (The hearing originally was scheduled for Oct. 31.)
The WFDL is almost 50 years old and was adopted partly to "protect dealers against unfair treatment by grantors, who inherently have superior economic power and superior bargaining power in the negotiation of dealerships."
The city's "convenience clause" in its contract with JusticePoint would allow the city to terminate the pact for any reason with just 10 days' written notice, but a judge could find that clause a dead letter. The WFDL specifically prohibits dealership relationships from being "varied by contract or agreement. Any contract or agreement purporting to do so is void and unenforceable to that extent only."
Block argued in court that JusticePoint did not qualify as a dealership because it did not charge its litigant clients for services. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found way back in 1989, however, that a book distributor who did not sell goods or services to downstream customers still qualified as a dealer through its distribution activities alone.
Jeffrey Mandell, in court and in JusticePoint's $5 million claim against the city, argued that JusticePoint met the required qualifications of a dealership under the law.
First, he said, it has a contract with the city. JusticePoint has been providing Municipal Court Alternative program services since 2014, he said.
Second, JusticePoint distributes services on behalf of the city, "assisting approximately 11,000 individuals since 2015," he wrote in the claim letter.
Finally, he said, a "community of interest," which he acknowledged was a "slippery concept," exists between the city and JusticePoint. The state Supreme Court established two guideposts — a continuing financial interest and interdependence — and the JusticePoint-city relationship meets both, he said. JusticePoint has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to run its Milwaukee program.
"The city benefits significantly from JusticePoint's efforts not only inasmuch as JusticePoint fulfills the inherent purposes of the program, but also because JusticePoint increases the City's goodwill and advances prosocial causes, thereby improving the city as a whole and the Municipal Court in particular," he wrote in the Circuit Court suit. Interdependence is shown through the agency's close and continuing collaboration with city officials, he said.
Under the WFDL, the city cannot terminate the JusticePoint contract without providing a 90-day notice, detailing the grounds for termination, and providing JusticePoint with an opportunity to cure, Mandell said in the suit.
The city has done none of those things, he said.
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