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Fargo lawyer sued for appearing in SD court without a license or privileges

William Harrie

FARGO—A Fargo lawyer and his law firm who represented a driver and his insurance company following a fatal vehicle crash almost a decade ago in the far northeast corner of South Dakota are being sued by the family of a decorated World War II veteran who died in the crash.

William Harrie and the Nilles Law Firm are defendants in the lawsuit brought by Teresa Ann Thompson and the estate of Winfield Thompson, a Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribal member who was a prisoner of war after the famous Bataan Death March in The Philippines for three years. Teresa is Winfield Thompson's daughter.

Winfield Thompson was a passenger and one of two people who died in the Nov. 6, 2009 crash in Roberts County. A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against the driver of the other vehicle, Nicholas Helgeson and his insurance company, Nodak Insurance Co.

The lawsuit says the Thompson family suffered damages because Harrie practiced law in a South Dakota court in the case without a license and failed to even request out-of-state privileges. It also alleges Harrie displayed an "arrogant and snub nature" during the wrongful death case. Harrie's failure to obtain privileges to practice ended up delaying the case and Teresa Thompson's attorney fees were in excess of $200,000 with an additional $50,000 in other expenses, says the lawsuit.

"Harrie's conduct in practicing law in South Dakota without a license caused undue delay and significant added monetary expense because of its illegality," says the lawsuit, which was originally filed in South Dakota circuit court but was moved to federal court last Friday, Feb. 16.

The lawsuit also accuses Nodak Insurance Co. of knowingly using unlicensed lawyers to practice law in the state in other cases.

Harrie was one of the lawyers from the Nilles Law Firm who represented Helgeson and his insurance company, according to the lawsuit.

In earlier reports from the case, a South Dakota judge sharply criticized Harrie, claiming he jeopardized his client's case by working on it for more than year despite not having a South Dakota license.

Roberts County Judge Jon Flemmer wrote that it was "not excusable" that Harrie "unlawfully practiced law" in South Dakota starting in June of 2014.

In a scathing court filing, Flemmer wrote that "Mr. Harrie engaged in conduct involving fraud, deceit or misrepresentation when he began practicing law without a license in front of this court."

Flemmer ordered a default judgment in favor of the Thompsons and called for a damage hearing where Thompson can provide proof of damages.

Helgeson in the meantime swapped Harrie for a new lawyer, Mark Arndt. In a court filing, Arndt asked the judge to overturn his order for default judgment, calling it a "harsh remedy" that unfairly punished Helgeson for Harrie's mistake.

A message left for Harrie on Wednesday, Feb. 21, to comment on the most recent lawsuit wasn't returned.

However, in an earlier report, an attorney from the Serkland Law Firm in Fargo, Ron McLean, wrote in an email: "Bill Harrie is aware of the rulings entered by a South Dakota court regarding Mr. Harrie's appearance in a car accident case. Mr. Harrie did not misrepresent himself as a licensed South Dakota lawyer. He believed that listing another attorney in his law firm on the pleadings, who is licensed in South Dakota, would not violate South Dakota rules. Mr. Harrie is obligated to comply with confidentiality duties so he is not at liberty to respond in any further detail."

Harrie's conduct violated the South Dakota Rules of Professional Conduct, Flemmer wrote, and called into question his ability to meet the ethical standards required of lawyers in the state.

Flemmer added that Harrie showed a "lack of civility and professionalism" at Helgeson's deposition.

"The Court determines that the Court's time has been wasted," Flemmer wrote.

Winfield Thompson was awarded a slew of medals and honors, returned to the Sisseton Wahpeton reservation after his military service and raised seven children, including Teresa. His wife preceded him in death.