Madison County Court Judge Stacy O'Neal cancelled an arrest warrant for former Downtown Jackson Partners secretary Linda Brune. Judge O'Neal also set aside the default judgment that her predecessor awarded against Ms. Brune. Downtown Jackson Partner sued Ms. Brune in Madison County Court to recover over $40,000 she allegedly embezzled.
DJP fired MS. Brune for providing records to the Clarion-Ledger after Jerry Mitchell published a story on DJP spending. DJP sued Ms. Brune for embezzlement and sought her deposition. DJP asked Judge Will Longwitz to hold former employee Linda Brune in contempt of court for refusing to participate in a deposition. DJP accused her of embezzling over $40,000 in a lawsuit filed nearly two years ago. Judge Will Longwitz held a hearing to determine whether he should compel her deposition in October but Ms. Brune did not appear at the hearing. She instead attended the motion hearings that were held in State v. Robert Shuler Smith even though she was not subpoenaed to be there. DJP Executive Director Ben Allen himself is under indictment for allegedly embezzling and misusing DJP funds. His trial starts Monday. Attorney Sam Begley represents DJP. Ms. Brune is representing herself
Judge Will Longwitz ruled that Ms. Brune should provide a deposition to DJP at a witness room in the Madison County Courthouse on November 1 at 2:00 PM but she did not appear. DJP submitted the motion for contempt the next day. She sent an email to Judge Longwitz's court administrator on September 21 that stated:
I will not be available for depositions or any related matter to this case until after the criminal trial of Downtown Jackson Partners' president. I have no attorney at this time but he will be available, hopefully in December. I will be available any time after the aforementioned trial is over.
Ms. Brune did not appear for any of the other proceedings that took place in this lawsuit although she did participate in a telephone conference on December 1. DJP asked the court to enter a default judgment against Ms. Brune. The court approved the motion and entered a default judgment against the defendant.
Things were going DJP's way until a little thing called an election took place in Madison County last November. Stacy O'Neal defeated Judge Longwitz and assumed his seat on the bench. Meanwhile, Ms. Brune filed a motion to set aside the default judgment and also contested the motion for contempt. She claimed she did not receive proper notice.* The plaintiff's contested her motion and stated in its reply:
The next day, (after failing to appear for deposition) on November 2, 2016, the Plaintiffs filed their motion to have the Defendant held in contempt of court. (Doc. #24). The Court conducted a telephonic hearing on the motion on the morning of Friday, November 4, 2016, in which the Defendant freely participated and was quite talkative. At that time, she told the Court that she would not answer any discovery or submit to a deposition until after the conclusion of a criminal trial scheduled to commence in Hinds County more than three weeks later, on November 28, 2016. On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the Court entered its contempt order which ordered the Defendant’s arrest and to be held in custody until she had completed the Plaintiffs’ deposition of her. (p.16 posted below)Judge O'Neal agreed with the defense and set aside the default judgment because the defendant did not receive a proper notice for a December hearing. The order stated Judge Longwitz held a telephonic hearing but issued no notice for it nor was a court reporter present.
However, DJP filed another motion for a default judgment and "properly noticed" Ms. Brune for a hearing that took place on January 4. Ms. Brune did not attend the second hearing because of "medical reasons". Judge O'Neal held the hearing anyway since Ms. Brune did not provide any documentation of her medical excuse. The court said it heard the plaintiff's argument and took the "matter under advisement."
Judge O'Neal did acknowledge that Mr. Brune was very "uncooperative" in this case but still refused to grand a default judgment or sanction her because she did not appear at a deposition that was not properly ordered or noticed. Thus Judge O'Neal set aside the arrest warrant for Ms. Brune. However, she said DJP can ask to reinstate the warrant if she refused to participate in a deposition after receiving a thirty-day notice.
The Court ordered Ms. Brune to appear at a show cause hearing on February 8 to explain why she did not participate in a pretrial order as required. Ms. Brune will also have to participate in a deposition that will take place in a witness room at the conclusion of the show cause hearing. Judge O'Neal also granted Ms. Brune's request to stay her testimony until she concludes her testimony in the prosecution of Ben Allen.
Update: Judge O'Neal denied an emergency motion for a protective order yesterday. DJP sought to impose a "gag" order on Ms. Brune after she commented about this decision on the JFP website.
Kingfish note: It seems that the new judge had some reservations about how some actions were noticed and decided to take a step back. She noted that the defendant has been uncooperative and is going to allow the parties to have a rematch of sorts.
*Judge O'Neal said this happened several times. She stated:
A review of the docket report in this matter reveals that the Plaintiffs have never filed a Notice
of Deposition under Rule 30 in an attempt to take the oral deposition of the Defendant. What may or
may not have happened over phone calls, messages or email is not sufficient for this Court to
grant such a severe sanction as default judgment. The docket reveals that the Plaintiffs filed a
Motion to Compel written discovery,which was properly noticed and heard by Judge Longwitz on October 25th. The Defendant failed to appear for this hearing. At said hearing, Judge Longwitz ruled from the bench granting the Plaintiffs motion to compel but no written order was ever entered. Next, it appears that the Plaintiffs secured a witness room at the courthouse for a deposition of the Defendant on November 1st and sent a proposed order to Judge Longwitz that would have ordered the Defendant to appear and be deposed. Said proposed Order was never executed. Any attempt to sanction the Defendant for her specific failure to attend a deposition on November 1st is without merit since there was no Order for her to appear on that day and time nor was there a Notice of Deposition served upon her for that day and time. Finally, on November 9, 2016, Judge Longwitz executed an order that a warrant should be issued for the Defendant to be arrested for the purpose of deposing her on November 10th or other convenient time. To date, the Defendant has not been arrested.
Linda Brune provided several boxes of Downtown Jackson Partners documents to the State Auditor and the Clarion-Ledger in 2014 while she was employed as a secretary by DJP. Reporter Jerry Mitchell had a field day and garnered several front page headlines for his scoop. However, the media did not report DJP sued its former employee for embezzlement.
Downtown Jackson Partners sued Linda Brune on December 10, 2014 in Madison County Court for allegedly embezzling $40,439. The lawsuit also states she was "terminated on July 25, 2014 for sharing confidential corporate information with a reporter from the Clarion-Ledger." Ms. Brune is a resident of Madison County.
The complaint states that Ms. Brune worked as DJP's administrative assistant for several years prior to her termination. She was allowed to "fill out" checks but did not have signature authority. DJP alleges that she "embezzled 38 check instruments representing a total sum of $40,439" by making checks payable to herself and "forging Mr. Allen's signature on each of the checks." She would then allegedly alter the payee's name on the bank statements by "whiting out" (no racism intended) her name and replacing it with the name of a vendor. She would then allegedly copy the altered statement so evidence of the whiteout would not appear. The complaint charges her with several counts of fraud, conversion, breach of fiduciary duty, and unjust enrichment. DJP asked for damages and attorney's fees. Attorney Sam Begley represents DJP.
Ms. Brune replied with the standard denials one usually sees in an answer and accused DJP of forum shopping. She then threw a few charges of her own at DJP:
"Defendant was given no reason for termination after 17 years of employment with him at the City Council and at Downtown Jackson Partners. Moreover, nothing should be confidential at DJP as they are funded by tax dollars and open to examination of all documents. Mr. Allen's misuse i.e. giving money to those in his favor, laundering money for various organizations, giving checks to his son's friends for non-existent events to be held to promote Jackson totaling $10,000 plus dollars.
She argues that any funds withdrawn from DJP accounts were delivered directly to Mr. Allen. She claims she was "loyal to a fault" and doesn't have the money to "reimburse his slush fund." Nothing else was filed in the case after Ms. Brune submitted her answer. The case is assigned to Judge Will Longwitz. Ms. Brune represents herself. DJP also subpoenaed records from two Vicksburg casinos and State Bank & Trust.
DJP has since sought to depose Ms. Brune. However, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith attempted to prevent her deposition in a letter sent to DJP last May. Mr. Smith stated she could not testify since she is a victim in the case although the indictments state DJP is the victim of the misuse of funds. The letter stated:
The State of Mississippi represents Ms. Linda Brune as a victim In the criminal case of State of Mississippi versus Benjamin Wade Allen. She will not be available for depositions or any other matter related to the civil dispute in the above-referenced until she has retained counsel to respond to numerous requests by DJP. Further, she has advised that she will request the Court to hold any civil matter in abeyance until the disposition of the criminal matter. Further, she has received correspondence requesting that she waive her right to a trial by jury. She vehemently opposes to waiving her rightto a trial by jury, or any other rights.Downtown Jackson Partners and the court apparently ignored the District Attorney.
If you have anything further regarding this matter, please direct your correspondence to our office. Her new counsel with be in touch with you in the very near future. Thank you. Earlier post.
The complete court file is posted below.