Fighting Over Rosa Parks’ Coat

The Michigan Court of Appeals released what will presumably be the final statement on litigation involving the estate of Rosa Parks, the deceased civil rights icon who died a resident of Wayne County in 2005. Click here to read the unpublished opinion.

The case is lengthy, and details much of the history of the litigation. In the end, it came down to a battle over her coat.  Not just any coat, but the coat she wore on the day she made history by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Readers Digest version is that Ms. Parks had no children. A Foundation offered a will which favored the Foundation.  Ms. Parks’ heirs challenged the will, but settled the case by agreeing to a share of the proceeds from the sale of the historically significant items she possessed, as well as the licensing value of Ms. Parks’ likeness.  As part of that agreement, one niece agreed to contribute the coat Ms. Parks wore on that fateful day in 1955 to the items to be sold.  She never produced the coat and later claimed she did not know its whereabouts.  Hence the litigation continued.

So, is there anything to be learned from this case (other than people will fight about pretty much anything)? Maybe:

  1. If you lose in probate court, it’s not cool to reframe the case and file it in circuit court, no matter how much you don’t like the probate judge. The probate judge decided that the Foundation was entitled to an offset for the missing coat, and advised the Foundation to initiate an action to determine the coat’s value. The Foundation went and filed a civil action in circuit court for breach of the settlement agreement. The circuit court bounced it back to probate court. The COA agreed with the circuit and probate court that the gravamen of the case was the administration of the estate and properly in probate court. The Foundation got sanctioned for forum shopping.
  2. There are limits to when you can get a jury in probate court. Sanctions are equitable and damages are legal. The COA agreed that this case was about sanctions, therefore equitable, and therefore the probate court correctly denied the right to a jury.
  3. Some things are really hard to value, and if the party seeking to establish a value fails to do so, they can lose big time. This part of the case is probably the most troubling. The Foundation was essentially instructed to bring an action to establish the value of the missing coat so that the heirs could be appropriately sanctioned. The Foundation produced an 84 page appraisal which offered a variety of methods for valuing the coat, using comparables such as Jesse Owen’s gold medal and the dress Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang the birthday song to President Kennedy. The heirs offered no evidence. The trial court concluded that the appraisal was unconvincing, and that therefore, the Foundation had failed to meet its burden to establish a value, and therefore, that no sanction would be allowed. The COA affirmed that result too.  Seems extreme. Perhaps the Foundation had reason to want to get to circuit court.

And that’s how it ends. Worth a read perhaps only because of who it involves.