The lawyer who won Minnesota's largest-ever jury award of $563 million in November started with small-time cases that taught him great lessons.
Mike Collyard, 49, a graduate of then-Hamline University College of Law, spent several years as a fledgling lawyer working for a veteran attorney in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood. They represented prostitutes, drug peddlers, debtors and others who could barely afford even a bargain-basement lawyer.
"We represented people who didn't come from a lot," Collyard said. "Some of them were innocent or victims. I learned a lot about people and second chances."
In his largest, multiyear case Collyard represented the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee to recoup funds owed to victims of white-collar fraudster Tom Petters. The $563 million verdict would be the biggest chunk of reclaimed money from the case, a sum that now totals $1.25 billion. Losses from the fraud scheme are estimated at $3.7 billion.
Law firms such as Collyard's Robins Kaplan often work big cases on contingency — betting their own capital. They typically reap up to 30% of a verdict award. Collyard and Doug Kelley, the Petters bankruptcy trustee, are not specifying the payday.
The verdict also is pending post-trial motions before U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright. Defendant BMO Harris Bank, which assumed the case from a predecessor bank, plans to appeal the verdict that could grow to $1 billion-plus with interest.
"Collyard was a rock," Kelley said. "He's kind of quiet, but tenacious. Mike figured out that BMO destroyed documents in violation [of a judicial] order to preserve evidence. Judge Wright affirmed that in jury instructions. In 48 years of practice, only once had I seen [such] a 'spoliation instruction' and punitive damages go to a jury. Mike figured it out and put on a good story."
Collyard was confident, once he discovered document destruction. And key bank employees could not recall, in videotaped depositions, why they didn't report possible money laundering as they witnessed billions of dollars flow through a small-business checking account at the former M&I bank's Edina branch from 2002 to 2008.
"They were required by their own policies to investigate money-laundering alarms," Collyard said. "Nobody could explain why that wasn't suspicious."
The defense argued Petters and several other executives had duped M&I/BMO into believing that Petters Co. was borrowing money from investors to finance the sale of Chinese-made TVs to sell to the likes of Walmart and Costco.
There were a lot of licensed professionals, including who worked for Petters, who got fooled or looked the other way until an insider squealed.
Petters Co. sold no TVs to retailers, Collyard asserted. The money was coming from two wholesalers who were involved in the fraud. And Petters, now in prison, was repaying old investors with fresh money from new investors. Petters and top associates skimmed about $100 million.
"There were 3.5 years of alarms telling the bank about suspicious transactions," Collyard said. "They didn't take action, in violation of policies, duties and law. The bank could see that money was going to [three Petters executives] for no legitimate business purpose.
"It started out as just this little $500,000 scheme," Collyard told the jury. "If the bank would have shut it down in 2001, the losses would have been $500,000 ... if the bank would have … lived up to its responsibility.''
Petters' office manager, Deanna Coleman, in on the scheme, went to the FBI in 2008 as investors complained they weren't being repaid. The walls collapsed on Petters, who had been on a buying spree that included Polaroid and Sun Country Airlines.
Collyard's mentor at Robins taught him to paint jurors a simple picture. Collyard succinctly presented the case with key graphic and video clips of depositions of key BMO employees who couldn't recall much.
Bill Manning, the retired Robins Kaplan intellectual-property litigator, called Collyard "the best trial lawyer I have encountered in 42 years of practice.
"Mike absolutely outworks everyone," Manning said. "His ability to take complexity and reduce it to lay language for jurors is unmatched. His arguments are thought out, short and persuasive. We never worked side-by-side on a case, but we talked many times, strategizing about approaches, the best arguments, case theories and much else."
Collyard, 49, a hockey player out of the University of St. Thomas, is a married father of four. He plans to resume pro bono work for the disadvantaged, after years exclusively on the high-buck Petters case. There's great satisfaction in seeking justice for those who can't afford it. He's also seeing more of his family.