Court sides with Menards founder in ex-fiancee's lawsuit

The founder of the Menards building supply stores doesn't owe his former fiancée compensation for professional work she said she performed for his multibillion-dollar company and other business ventures during their nine-year relationship, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Debra Sands filed a lawsuit in 2008 arguing that John Menard promised her an ownership share in his various business ventures in exchange for the work she did for them. The Minnesota attorney argued that she helped him expand his assets, including finding investment opportunities, and demanded an undetermined amount of compensation equivalent to the value of her work.

But in a 5-2 decision, the high court said Sands failed to show her contributions increased Menard's assets and ruled the pair weren't engaged in a joint enterprise. The court also noted she was paid for some of her work.

"They've done a disservice to unmarried co-habitants who may find themselves in Deb's position in the future," Sands' attorney, Daniel Shulman, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "She was with him for nine years, working day and night, 24-seven, for his businesses, plus taking care of his personal life."

Menard has denied he ever promised Sands an ownership share and that they ever lived together. Menard's attorney didn't immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking comment.

Sands and Menard began dating in late 1997 and got engaged the following year, according to court documents. Menard took her on multiple boating and skiing trips, and vacations to London and Italy. He gave her a Ford Mustang for Christmas in 2005, but their relationship ended the next year.

She filed her lawsuit two years later, arguing that her work for Menard's business ventures included finding investment opportunities and designing store logos. She said she helped manage the Team Menard auto racing venture and a horse racing business, and provided legal services for the company beginning in 2003.

Sands argued that her legal work alone amounted to as much as $4.3 million, but the Supreme Court noted she wasn't licensed to practice law in Wisconsin.

Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley, the court's two liberal-leaning justices, dissented. They argued Sands has a legitimate claim and the case should proceed to trial.

Menards is the nation's third-largest home improvement chain behind Home Depot and Lowe's, with more than 300 stores across the Midwest, according to its website. The company generated $9.5 billion in revenue in 2016, according to Forbes.

Sands' sister also sued Menard after she was fired from her job as general counsel for the building supply company in 2006, alleging she was targeted after complaining about a gender pay discrepancy. The state Supreme Court sided with Menard in that case in 2010, saying he didn't have to hire her back.

Justice Michael Gableman wrote the majority opinion in that case. He also was among the justices who sided with Menard on Friday. Records show Menard donated $1,000 to Gableman's 2008 re-election campaign. Shulman, Sands' attorney, said he didn't question the contribution during litigation, noting the donation happened a decade ago.


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