Parkston couple fight back after bad Minn. motel experience
TWO HARBORS, Minn. — No hot water. No working Internet. Dated furnishings and an old tube TV.
Mona Sinkey and Joe Hafner, of Parkston, expected more when they booked a room for $134 at the Country Inn of Two Harbors last summer. It had been ranked 2 1/2 stars by Priceline, the online booking service they used.
At 2 1/2 stars, they expected accommodations comparable to a Hampton Inn, a Country Inn & Suites, a Residence Inn or a Fairfield.
But Sinkey said they were shocked by the quality and felt deceived by the Country Inn name. And she found the front desk either unattended or not helpful.
“The room was clean but everything was old,” she said. “The furniture looked like it was from a motel liquidation sale. I never got underneath the bedspread that night. The closet was 20 inches wide. The bathroom was small, the towels thin and mismatched. It looked like a hotel no one was putting money in. The feeling you had was they had done everything as cheaply as possible and were charging as much as possible.”
What would you do?
Most probably would just endure it, but vow never to return again.
For Sinkey and Hafner, who are frequent travelers, the experience soured an otherwise pleasant trip to the Duluth, Minn., area during the Tall Ships festival.
Bothered especially by the inflated rating, they decided to fight back as consumers. They eventually won, but not before they were sued and summoned to court, costing them time, money and worry that the case could drag on for a very long time.
As a vindication of sorts for the couple, the inn has since been sold and undergone a complete remodel.
“It was in great need of renovations,” agreed the new owner, Keith Bakke of Duluth. “The previous owner had not maintained it. It was apparent to me the hotel needed a complete renovation.”
Sinkey and Hafner first complained to Priceline, because it had sold them the night’s stay, then to their credit card company, which did credit their account.
But the couple’s victory was short-lived.
The motel sued them in February for $1,900, including $1,200 in attorney fees in a claim filed in February in Lake County’s conciliation court.
“If they used the room, they should pay for it,” said Ronald L. Kopeska, the attorney who filed the claim on behalf of Country Inn of Two Harbors LLC.
“It’s very simple,” Kopeska said. “Do you want to give something to someone who didn’t pay for it? If everyone did, merchants would be broke.”
He said he didn’t know if the Country Inn along Minnesota Highway 61 was a 2 1/2-star motel, adding that that’s not the point.
Sinkey and Hafner did their homework. They talked to a lawyer to determine their rights and to understand the court process. They learned that Kopeska was actually the motel owner. They also learned on the Internet that Kopeska had a history of suspensions and other professional reprimands.
According to court records, Kopeska received an admonition from the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board in 1993 for failing to maintain proper trust account records and using a client’s trust account for non-client-related matters. In 2002, the Minnesota Supreme Court suspended Kopeska from practicing law for lying under oath in court. He was suspended again in 2007 for unprofessional conduct and again in 2008 for failing to prove he successfully completed the professional responsibility portion of the state bar exam, which was required for his reinstatement. He also has been placed on supervised probation at least twice.
Sinkey and Hafner contacted a man who also had been sued by the motel, represented by Kopeska, several years ago in a dispute over a billboard the motel had used. The case continued for three years with numerous motions and hearings and an appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals after a Lake County judge ruled in the man’s favor, court records indicate.
The couple worried that they, too, would become mired in a costly court case far from home that could drag on for years.
“We considered it to be a frivolous, retaliatory lawsuit,” Sinkey said.
Because of that, she tried to get the case moved to her home state of South Dakota but failed.
Sinkey and Hafner were summoned to appear at the Lake County Courthouse for the May 20 hearing before Judge Michael Cuzzo. Sinkey, attending for both of them, lost three days of work as a federal crop adjuster, and drove more than 1,000 miles roundtrip to attend the hearing.
Before starting, Cuzzo told Sinkey and Kopeska to take a few minutes to try to resolve the dispute. In the courtroom, Kopeska turned to Sinkey and said, “Do you have your checkbook with you?”
Fearful of what might happen, Sinkey relented.
“I’d be willing to give you $133.56 but not the $1,909,” she said.
“So is that your final offer?”
The hearing began. When Judge Cuzzo learned Sinkey had offered to pay the room charge but Kopeska refused it, he appeared displeased.
Kopeska argued that if the couple had a problem, they should have complained to staff and the motel would have done something.
“We’ve used Priceline for 12 years,” Sinkey said in her defense. “We’ve always been told if we have a problem, to take it up with Priceline.”
Cuzzo questioned the legal basis for the attorney fees, charging $400 an hour in a small claims case. Kopeska said “that’s what they normally ask for” and “I just do what they want me to do.”
When asked who “they” were, Kopeska said the motel owners. When pressed, Kopeska admitted to being one of the owners. Bakke, however, who bought the motel from Kopeska on April 1, said Kopeska was the sole owner at that point.
Cuzzo took the case under advisement. A few days later, he dismissed the case, with some critical words for Kopeska.
Kopeska’s request for $1,600 in attorney fees “appears to be nothing more than a bullying tactic,” Cuzzo wrote. He noted Sinkey having to travel from Parkston to Two Harbors as a result.
He suggested that awarding attorney fees in a conciliation case was unusual and Kopeska provided no legal basis for doing so.
“Further, Mr. Kopeska is not an independent privately retained attorney, but rather an owner of Country Inn,” Cuzzo wrote, adding that no billing statements verifying any attorney’s fee actually charged to Country Inn were offered.
He refused to award a judgment to Kopeska and questioned whether Kopeska’s claim — if any — should actually be against Priceline or the couple’s credit card company.
While pleased and relieved with the ruling, Sinkey waited anxiously for 30 days, during which Kopeska could file an appeal.
The 30 days passed, with no appeal filed in Lake County Court.
Sinkey said they were “cautiously optimistic” that Kopeska had decided not to pursue the matter any further. “We are going to see what happens as time goes on, but we hope that it is finished,” she said.