Chris Messerly JD '86 uses law to defend public good
Chris Messerly didn’t think he’d done anything heroic. Well, yes. He
had won his case. It was a big case, too, one that went all the way to
the Minnesota Supreme Court. But winning was what he’d been hired to do.
As a partner in the Minneapolis office of the law firm Robins, Kaplan,
Miller & Ciresi, winning cases was just one part of his job
description. It didn’t mean he was a hero.
In this case, it did.
In November 2008, Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota awarded Messerly the
Everyday Hero Award for his work on a case seeking justice for a young
girl scarred by abuse. “This little girl was just a newborn and she was
beaten on several occasions,” Messerly said. “She was taken to the same
hospital multiple times and three times the staff sent her home. The
fourth time, she arrived with horrific injuries that left her blind and a
In the state of Minnesota, Messerly explained, doctors are considered
mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse. However, prior to this
young girl’s case, doctors who suspected abuse and then chose not to
report it could not be sued for medical malpractice. It was a loophole
in desperate need of closing.
“This little girl, she couldn’t speak for herself and she needed a
chance at justice,” Messerly said, noting that she will face lifelong
medical expenses. Beyond securing a future for the girl, the goal of
this case was to put a law on the books that would hold doctors
accountable when it came to reporting child abuse. “We weren’t trying to
open a floodgate of malpractice suits against doctors. Instead, we
wanted to give doctors an incentive to report abuse,” he said.
Messerly argued the case before the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2007.
While he’d previously argued a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court
in 1994, this was his first trip to the high court in Saint Paul.
“It was terrifying and exciting,” Messerly said of the experience,
“but it was also a very important occasion. It was tremendous what was
riding on this case. It was the welfare of this little girl, the welfare
of every abused child in the state of Minnesota.” The justices agreed
and it was because of this win, and a subsequent law requiring doctors
to report suspected abuse, that Messerly was awarded the Everyday Hero
Award. “I was humbled. I was really honored. I didn’t expect the
recognition,” Messerly said. “I didn’t become a lawyer to win awards.”
He became a lawyer to help people. After earning an undergraduate
degree at Bowdoin College in Maine, Messerly returned to Minnesota, his
home state, and married his high school sweetheart. He spent two years
working as a paralegal with his current firm and then decided to enroll
in law school at Hamline, graduating with honors in 1986. As a law
student, Messerly was captain of the Barristers Hockey Team.
“Hamline was an appealing school because it has a pioneering spirit.
It’s committed to protecting the public welfare and the public good,”
Messerly said. “As a kid, I was raised to think of others, to help
others, and Hamline further instilled that in me. Hamline has a strong
tradition of teaching its students to put others first, and really, that
is what lawyers should be doing.”
Now that he is a lawyer, Messerly has built a distinguished career
and a solid reputation by defending victims of medical malpractice and
personal injury. “I’m drawn to helping people who’ve been injured by no
fault of their own,” Messerly said. While he does clock billable hours
for many of his cases, he also devotes a considerable amount of his time
to pro bono work. He’s fought several Title IX cases on a pro bono
basis. Title IX is a federal ruling allocating equal extracurricular
funding for both boys’ and girls’ activities. It is because of Messerly
that a women’s hockey team exists at St. Cloud State.
Framed family photographs crowd Messerly’s office. Most of them
showcase the radiant smiles of his three children, one daughter and two
sons, all of whom have grown up playing hockey under the watchful eye of
their dad. Messerly has coached each of his kids on the ice, and doing
so, he said, has been a “highlight” of his life. The time he spent with
his daughter’s team, though, pushed him to take on Title IX cases.
“I’ve coached boys’ and girls’ teams, and I’ve seen how they are
treated differently. The girls get crummy ice times and less funding,”
he said, an inequality that struck him as unfair. “One of the main
reasons I have been a successful lawyer is because I’ve been playing
team sports all my life,” he said. “Team sports prepare you for every
aspect of life to come. You learn to support others and to play under
the rules but to hit as hard as you can. And at the end, you learn to
Messerly considers himself a team player and he’s quick to credit his
co-workers. Without his fellow lawyers and willing support staff, he
said, he wouldn’t be able to take on so many pro bono clients. Robins,
Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Partner Phillip Sief ’85 and Associate
Genevieve Zimmerman ’03 are two of his teammates that stand out. Both
are graduates of Hamline’s School of Law and together with Messerly and
several others in their office, have taken on twenty pro bono cases
representing victims of the 35W bridge collapse. Messerly recruited
nineteen other law firms to represent about 125 victims who are seeking
settlement money from the state. The various law firms have formed a
consortium in order to better communicate with each other and lobby more
effectively at the State Capitol. Messerly spearheaded efforts on
behalf of the consortium with legislators, successfully arguing for the
state’s unprecedented compensation fund. He also dealt with the media,
keeping it informed of the consortium’s progress.
Throughout the bridge case, and throughout the rest of his career,
Messerly has maintained close ties with Hamline’s law school. He was the
longest-standing member of the dean’s advisory board and he returns
whenever he’s asked to speak with students. “I love what I do,” Messerly
said, “I’ll take any opportunity to share my compassion. I’m so
fortunate to do what I do.”
by Kelly Westhoff MALS '01