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Profiles in Practice: Michael Dittberner

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Profiles in Practice: Michael Dittberner

Family law practitioner Michael Dittberner takes a unique approach to his legal practice that leaves many in awe of his talents and abilities. Not only is he gifted to handle and study the intellectual complexities of legislation and legislative reform, but he is also incredibly kind, compassionate, and relatable. Michael loves the practice of family law because he gets to connect with clients on a personal level while they are in the midst of trying times, while also participating in legislative reform to modernize the statutes to which his clients are subject.

Michael was born and raised in Minnesota, and he is the first attorney in his family. He was inspired to pursue a legal career at a young age after living through the events surrounding the Watergate scandal. He was fascinated by prosecuting attorneys and was acutely aware of the political issues of the time. Michael has long contemplated constitutional law arguments and followed Supreme Court cases. He attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, where he earned dual bachelor’s degrees in political science and sociology. He also completed an undergraduate internship at the White House during the last year of the Carter Administration where he was exposed to politics outside of the academic setting. Michael realized that many of the politicians he was surrounded by were attorneys, and he decided to attend law school at William Mitchell in St. Paul.

Shortly after graduating from law school in 1984, Michael was hired as an associate attorney for a general practice law firm in downtown St. Paul, where he was introduced to the practice of family law, simply because younger attorneys in the firm were typically assigned to handle the divorce and post-decree files. At the time, the entire emphasis of family law was on litigation. He learned the ins and outs of family law through on-the-job training and was exposed to the legislative process when his boss, who had previously been a state senator, would bring him to the Capitol to lobby. Through these experiences, Michael learned about the public policy side of family law, which he has participated in consistently ever since.

In the late 1980s, Michael joined the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Family Law Section as a member of its Amicus Committee, where he dealt with blockbuster Supreme Court cases, which fascinated him. He also worked with the Family Law Section Legislative Committee on public policy issues. Through his participation on these committees, Michael was hired away from his first law firm position to his current firm: Linder, Dittberner, Winter & McSweeney, where he is now a shareholder.

Over the course of Michael’s career, he has observed progression in family law procedures and legislation. For example, when Michael was a new lawyer, there was no expedited process for child support proceedings. After the administrative process for child support proceedings and the Minnesota Child Support Guidelines were adopted, courts were able to provide more uniformity in child support obligations and preserve court resources, rather than using the traditional court process. Another significant improvement he has realized is an increased emphasis on using Alternative Dispute Resolution methods, such as mediation and early neutral evaluations, rather than litigation. He has also seen changes to laws, such as custody and parenting-time statutes, which have become much more child-centric.

Michael-Dittberner-1″Michael loves the practice of family law because he gets to connect with clients on a personal level while they are in the midst of trying times.”

As laws change, Michael has found it crucial to maintain competency in his practice area. Michael stays abreast of newly introduced legislation as a fellow and the co-chair of the Legislative Committee of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), Minnesota Chapter. He also collaborates with his colleagues that are similarly passionate about family law legislation. Michael reads the Minnesota Court of Appeals and Minnesota Supreme Court decisions that are released each week, and he keeps track of when the Supreme Court grants review of specific cases.
Much has changed in the family law profession throughout Michael’s career, and he is hopeful that the field will continue to progress and modernize with the times. Like most areas of law, Michael believes there will always be room for improvement in family law. He participates in legislative reformation where he can. An example of this is his involvement with the Minnesota Bar Association’s Family Law Section, where he has devoted significant amounts of time to discussing legislative matters. Michael is specifically interested to see how the laws pertaining to parentage and reproductive technologies, spousal maintenance, and antenuptial agreements reform to adapt to modern times. He has faith in the collegiality of the legal profession, and particularly among family law practitioners, to come together and collaborate on reformed legislation.

The organizations that Michael volunteers with contribute to legislative reformation as well as progression in the legal field. Michael serves as the co-chair of the Minnesota Lavender Bar Association (MLBA), which works to promote equality and justice in the legal profession and the LGBTQ+ community in Minnesota. The MLBA provides support for LGBTQ+ attorneys through mentorship and networking opportunities, as well as opportunities to earn continuing education credits by attending annual conferences. He values supporting bar affinity groups that celebrate diverse and minority attorneys.

In addition to Michael’s participation in organizations such as these, he also presents the Case Law Update at Minnesota CLE’s Annual Family Law Institute and is a member of the Minnesota Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) where he helped put together the annual case law report. Additionally, he is the co-author of Chapter 23 of the MN Child Custody Deskbook: Custody Labels and Parenting Plans: Requirements, Consequences and Options. Michael is also certified as a family trial law advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy (NBTA), a nonprofit organization that certifies specialists based on high standards of competence and integrity. Michael’s contributions to Minnesota’s evolving family law landscape are impressive and invaluable—to say the least—and he is a genuinely kind and caring practitioner.

By Chelsea Barr

A new entry by Michael D. Dittberner: Life Insurance provisions in divorce proceedings – safeguard or pitfall?

The recent unpublished opinion of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in Hall v. Reynolds, No. A17-1095, 2018 WL 700191 (Minn. App. Feb. 5, 2018) provides a lesson in how life insurance provisions in divorce decrees are enforced by district courts.   In Hall, the decedent was ordered in his divorce decree to name his ex-wife as sole  beneficiary of a $100,000 life insurance policy.  However, he named his mother, and later his  fiancée as primary beneficiary of both of his life insurance policies in violation of the decree.  After he passed away, his fiancée received proceeds from the policies totaling $530,412.22 and his ex-wife brought an action for a constructive trust claiming unjust enrichment.  After the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the fiancée, the ex-wife appealed to the court of appeals, which reversed the district court.  The court of appeals held  that an obligor’s violation of a court-ordered obligation to maintain life insurance in a specific amount is enough to impose a constructive trust or to claw back insurance proceeds when a court-ordered beneficiary does not receive the amount or policy to which they are entitled.  In addition, the court of appeals, citing Head v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. 449 N.W. 2d 449 (Minn. App. 1989) and Thiebault v. Thiebault, 421 N.W. 2d 747 (Minn. App. 1988), held that the ex-wife could claim an amount in excess of the child support remaining to be paid because the decree’s requirement of a $100,000 policy controlled how much was due.

While reviewing this decision, I read up on other decisions relating to the issue of life insurance and marital dissolution proceedings, and what follow are some useful practice tips and questions based on Hall v. Reynolds and these other decisions

A new entry by Michael D. Dittberner: New guidelines for courts in deciding whether to grant or deny petitions for orders for protection (OFP)

The Minnesota Supreme Court has issued an important decision which will significantly alter how district courts handle petitions for orders for protection (OFPs).  In Thompson v. Schrimsher, No. A16-0378, 2018 WL 627092 (Minn. Jan. 31, 2018), the Supreme Court reversed the Minnesota Court of Appeals, holding that a party petitioning for an order for protection does not have to show present harm, or an intent on the part of a respondent to do present harm.  This decision overrules court of appeals’ precedent that is more than thirty years old, such as Kass v. Kass, 355 N.W.2d 335  (Minn. App. 1984) and Bjergum v. Bjergum, 392 N.W.2d 604, 606 (Minn. App. 1986).  Minnesota Statutes Section 518B.01, subdivision 2(a) defines domestic abuse as meaning the following acts committed by a family or household member against  a family or household member:  “(1) physical harm, bodily injury, or assault; the infliction of fear of harm of imminent physical harm,  bodily injury or assault; or (3) terroristic threats…; criminal sexual conduct…; or interference with an emergency  call….”  The Supreme Court reasoned that lack of temporal (i.e, time-conditioning) language in subdivision 2(a)(1)’s reference to physical harm, bodily injury, or assault means that the legislature did  not intend to require petitioners to show  that the risk of harm was immediate or imminent in order to obtain an OFP. Thompson v. Schrimsher, at *8.  Thus, a finding of past domestic abuse alone is sufficient to support the issuance of an OFP without the need to show a present intent  to cause or inflict fear of imminent physical harm.  Id.

The respondent in Thompson v. Schrimsher had argued that  eliminating the requirement that physical harm be “present” or “immediate” would increase the risk of district courts issuing OFPs based on single, isolated incidents of domestic abuse occurring in the distant past.  The Supreme Court stated that the respondent was overstating the risk, noting that district courts were not required to issue OFPs and that they had discretion to deny an OFP even when domestic abuse had in fact  occurred. Id at *9.  The Supreme Court noted that district courts should examine all relevant circumstances in deciding whether to grant an OFP, “includ[ing], but…not limited  to, the timing,  frequency, and severity of any alleged circumstances of ‘domestic abuse’, along with the likelihood of further abuse.” Id.  The Supreme Court also noted  that subdivision  7(a) of  section 518B.01 requires a petitioner to allege an immediate and present danger of domestic abuse before an OFP can be granted ex parte. Id at *7.

As a result of Thompson  v. Schrimsher, a petitioner seeking an OFP will no longer be unduly handicapped by the fact that the alleged abuse occurred, for example, more than six months prior to the filing of their petition.  By the same token, a respondent will  face an increased risk that their defense against an OFP will be unsuccessful.  Also, given the language  in Thompson v. Schrimsher about judicial discretion, there are increased risks that OFPs  will not  be granted even if the district court finds that domestic abuse occurred.   Parties, attorneys and judicial personnel will need to take to heart the Thompson court’s guidance about considering the  timing, frequency and severity of the alleged abuse, and likelihood of further abuse.  OFP proceedings will become more uncertain, and attorneys and parties will have to factor that uncertainty into their decisionmaking.


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