Peeking under the Hood, cont’d: Mississippi has finally passed sunshine legislation exposing to public scrutiny dealings of its attorney general with outside law firms, which can make large sums in contingency arrangements representing the state [Maggie Haberman, Politico] Not exactly unrelatedly, a Mississippi court has ruled that a settlement of the state’s case against MCI can’t funnel $14 million separately to private lawyers representing Hood on the theory that it was just a side payment and never represented public funds [YallPolitics, earlier on now-disbarred lead private lawyer in case]
Mississippi state auditor Phil Bryant “has issued a demand letter for recovery of the $14 million in legal fees paid by MCI to two law firms in the wake of the state’s $110 million settlement with MCI in a 2005 tax fraud case.” The Langston and Lundy & Davis law firms “were hired as outside counsel to represent the state by current Attorney General [Jim] Hood. Langston has been identified as one of Hood’s largest campaign contributors, a reality that Langston doesn’t deny.” The two firms were then cut into the $14 million as part of the negotiated settlement, but Bryant says the money belonged to the public and should have gone through the appropriations process. The twist: to enforce the state’s rights in the matter, Bryant will apparently have to call on legal support from the office of AG Hood himself, and you have to wonder how cooperative he’ll be. (Sid Salter, “Langston: State asks recovery of legal fees”, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Sept. 23; “State parties bring smack down”, Biloxi Sun-Herald, Sept. 23). More on the furor: Point of Law, May 13 and May 23, 2005.
Sen. Orrin Hatch wants to know why the Internal Revenue Service has hired Quinn Emanuel to assist in auditing Microsoft, with the power to compel sworn testimony [Sean Hackbarth, Institute for Legal Reform] For a sampling of the complications that can arise when governments hire outside law firms to prosecute tax cases, see our coverage of the Mississippi/MCI case or, in another part of the forest, the IRS’s periodic experiments with using private debt collection lawyers.
As a number of commentators have noted (e.g. Brett Kittredge @ Majority in Mississippi, Alan Lange @ YallPolitics), Booneville attorney Joey Langston, who just entered a guilty plea on charges of judicial corruption, is someone accustomed to throwing the weight of his pocketbook around in Mississippi politics. In particular, he has been among the biggest donors to incumbent Mississippi attorney general Jim Hood, even as Hood employed Langston and partner Tim Balducci on contract to handle the controversial MCI tax bill negotiations, with their resulting $14 million legal fees payable to Langston et al, and the potentially very lucrative Zyprexa litigation.
Equally interesting in some ways, however, are Langston’s activities on the national political scene. To take just one example: this CampaignMoney.com listing tabulates the top “527” contributions to a group called the Democratic Attorneys General Association, whose political and electoral mission is implied by its name. In the listing, two donors are tied for first place, with contributions of $100,000 apiece. One is the large Cincinnati law firm of Waite Schneider Bayless Chesley, associated with one of the country’s best-known plaintiff’s lawyers, Stanley Chesley. The other $100,000 contribution is from Joey Langston.
In presidential politics, Langston has recently been a repeat donor to the quixotic (and, since Iowa, defunct) campaign of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a lawmaker whose high degree of seniority on the Senate Judiciary Committee makes him important to ambitious lawyers whether or not he ever attains the White House. When the Scruggs scandal was still in its early stages, the WSJ law blog (Dec. 10) noted that two key figures in the affair, Tim Balducci and Steve Patterson, were strong backers of the Biden campaign: “Their bet on Biden was that he wouldn’t win the presidency but would become Secretary of State under a Hillary Clinton administration, according to two people familiar with their thinking.” The Journal reprinted (PDF) an invitation to an Aug. 10, 2007 fundraising reception for Biden at the Oxford (Miss.) University Club, sent out above the names of six hosts, three of whom (Scruggs, Balducci and Patterson) were soon indicted. Scruggs, of course, is better known for his support of Mrs. Clinton, a fundraiser for whom he had to cancel after the scandal broke.
Campaign-contributions databases such as OpenSecrets.org and NewsMeat indicate that Langston has been a prolific and generous donor to incumbent and aspiring Senators across the country, mostly Democrats (Murray, Cantwell, Daschle, Nelson, etc.) but also including a number of Republicans who might be perceived as swing votes or reachable, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Me.), and Arlen Specter (Penn.)
Incidentally, some critics have intimated that Langston’s generous support to DAGA, the Democratic Attorneys General Association, should actually be interpreted as a roundabout gift to Hood, who was the beneficiary of interestingly timed largesse from DAGA. It does not appear, however, that any of the parties involved — Langston, Hood or DAGA — have acknowledged any connection between the timing of the donations (& welcome Michelle Malkin, David Rossmiller, YallPolitics readers).
[Second of a two-part post. The first part is here.]
Now we may have a better idea why prominent Booneville, Miss. lawyer Joseph Langston recently withdrew as counsel for Dickie Scruggs in the widening corruption scandal: per a report by Jerry Mitchell in Sunday’s Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Langston was himself nabbed on corruption charges, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal authorities. According to the article, Langston’s guilty plea arose from his involvement in one of Scruggs’s many fee disputes with fellow lawyers, this one being the Luckey-Wilson asbestos fee matter (in which Scruggs’ adversaries were Alwyn Luckey and William Roberts Wilson Jr.) Langston will apparently testify that he worked with both Dickie Scruggs and son Zach in an attempt to improperly influence Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, who issued rulings favorable to Scruggs in the case. In one memorable detail, the C-L reports that federal authorities have obtained a May 29, 2006, e-mail in which “Zach Scruggs told his father’s attorney in the case, John Jones of Jackson, that ‘you could file briefs on a napkin right now and get it granted.'” Judge DeLaughter has denied any impropriety. (Jerry Mitchell, “Another lawyer pleads guilty”, Jan. 13). Separately, Patsy Brumfield of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, who was first with an unconfirmed report of Langston’s guilty plea, also reports from unnamed sources that federal prosecutors have flipped another of the five indictees in the original scandal, Steven Patterson (partner of informant Tim Balducci), and that documents to be unsealed Monday will clarify other aspects of the status of the case. (“First public clue Patterson has pleaded in Scruggs case”, Jan. 11; “Scruggs updates”, Jan. 12). Discussion: Lotus/folo, Jan. 12, Jan. 13.
The implications are enormous. Among them:
* It looks as if informant Balducci, who formerly practiced law in the Langston law firm, wasn’t kidding when he said he knew where there were “bodies buried“. Information from Balducci likely helped lead the feds to raid the Langston office and seize records documenting the alleged Wilson-Luckey conspiracy.
* Langston is no incidental Scruggs sidekick or henchman; he’s quite a big deal in his own right, with a national reputation in mass tort litigation. He’s been deeply involved in pharmaceutical liability litigation, in tobacco litigation, in litigation against HMOs, and in litigation against non-profit hospitals over alleged violations of their charitable charters, among other areas. Mississippi attorney general Jim Hood, the law enforcement officer who has comically been playing potted plant as one after another of his closest political allies have been getting indicted in recent weeks, has employed Langston as lead counsel for the state in both the controversial Eli Lilly Zyprexa litigation and the even more controversial MCI back-tax-bill litigation. Langston also served Scruggs as go-between in the much-discussed funneling of $50 million in tobacco funds to ex-football player P.L. Blake (to whom now-reportedly-flipped Patterson was also close). If the reports that Langston is now cooperating with the feds are accurate, he will presumably be expected to tell what he knows about other episodes. (Langston has also endeavored to provide intellectual leadership for the plaintiff’s bar, as in this Federalist Society panel discussion presentation (PDF) in which he strongly criticizes the work on federalism and state attorneys general of Ted’s AEI colleague Michael Greve).
* Part of Scruggs’s modus operandi, as we know from tobacco and Katrina (among other) episodes, is to arrange to bring down prosecutions and other public enforcement actions on the heads of his litigation opponents. A particularly brutal instance of this crops up in today’s Clarion-Ledger piece, which reports that Scruggs in 2001 took documents obtained in discovery from Wilson, his fee-dispute opponent, and brought them to Hinds County (Jackson) district attorney Ed Peters hoping to instigate a state tax prosecution of Wilson:
Later, one of Wilson’s lawyers met with Peters, and [Wilson attorney Vicki] Slater said Peters told that lawyer that a “high-ranking public official” asked him to prosecute Wilson.
Peters could not be reached for comment.
Wilson did nothing to warrant criminal prosecution, Slater said. “All of this was to help Scruggs in his lawsuit.”
This is the same Dickie Scruggs of whom the New York Times was less than a year ago running moistly admiring profiles quoting common-man admirers of the Oxford, Miss.: lawyer: “good people. … If he tells you something, it’s gospel.”
P.S. It would certainly be interesting to know who that “high-ranking public official” who helped Scruggs in the tax-prosecution matter was, if there was one.
P.P.S. Corrected Monday a.m.: “Langston’s guilty plea was to an information; he waived indictment” (Folo). This post originally described Langston as pleading to an indictment.
Yes, it seems there were wiretaps. Defendants will be seeing evidence from the prosecution momentarily which might (or might not) be the trigger for further flipping and early plea deals, if such there will be.
There is enormous curiosity (e.g.) about P.L. Blake, to whom Scruggs says he paid $10 million (and tens of millions more in future payments) for vaguely described intelligence services aimed at swaying political influentials during the tobacco caper. Per a 1997 account posted at Y’All Politics, “Blake pleaded ‘no contest’ in 1988 to a federal charge that he conspired to bribe officials of the now-defunct Mississippi Bank to secure favorable loan terms.” The same article, citing reporting in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, reports that Blake was in close phone contact between 1994 and 1996 with eventually-disgraced state Auditor Steve Patterson, who after leaving office went into partnership with Timothy Balducci and is one of the five indicted in the current Scruggs affair. Per AP, “Patterson was a banker at Mississippi Bank before his 1984-1987 tenure as head of the Mississippi Democratic Party.”
David Rossmiller, as so often, is out front with a report filling in background on two other controversies involving Blake. One arose from a venture into the grain storage business which landed him in a Texas dispute in which his attorney was none other than Fred Thompson, later a Tennessee senator and presidential candidate. The other arose from his cordial dealings with a former chief of staff to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Mississippi).
Harper’s blogger Scott Horton has now published his take, as is his wont heavily dependent on hush-hush (but no doubt wholly trustworthy) confidential sources who float all sorts of theories about scoundrelly doings by the highly placed. He winds up with a theory that would pull Sen. Lott into it (though with no allegation of criminality) by way of the Acker contempt matter, as distinct from either the Balducci/Lackey bribery attempt or, say, the Paul Minor affair. Of Horton’s many anonymously sourced speculations, the one that caught my eye was tucked into a footnote: “A law enforcement official I interviewed, who for professional reasons asked to remain anonymous, told me that Scruggs’s junior partner Sidney Backstrom might take the same road as Balducci.” Now that is
news a rumor (more). (Update Tues. evening: Backstrom’s attorney Frank Trapp flatly denies that anything of the sort is in the works: Patsy R. Brumfield, “Backstrom firm on innocence, his attorney says”, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Dec. 12.)
This is probably a good place to apprise readers who aren’t aware of it that 25-odd years ago, while first gaining a footing in the policy world, I worked briefly on Capitol Hill drafting research papers for a committee then headed by Mr. Lott. We only talked a couple of times, I had never set foot in the state of Mississippi at the time, and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t recognize me on the street, but if you’re a conspiracy theorist about such matters, there you have it.
At Y’All Politics, commenter “lawdoctor1960” has some speculation as to why the remarkable deposition of Scruggs in the Luckey case didn’t get more media or political attention at the time.
Attorney Tim Balducci’s role as deputized lawyer for the state of Mississippi in the MCI and Zyprexa cases is drawing public scrutiny, and may result in pressure for reform of AG outside contracting.
We’ve started a new “Scandals” category for readers who want quick access to coverage of the Mississippi mess, also stocked with some earlier links to coverage of such earlier blow-ups as Milberg Weiss/Lerach, Kentucky fen-phen, the Paul Minor affair, etc. For those who are following Scruggs posts in sequence, be aware that yesterday’s first and second posts fell outside the numbering scheme.
A major early theme of the Dickie Scruggs defense has been that fortyish attorney Timothy Balducci, who was “flipped” by the feds and is cooperating with prosecutors, and who has spoken of sharing with Scruggs knowledge of where there are various “bodies buried”, is a clueless newbie, a mere Timmy Tiptoes who sought to impress his elders in hopes of someday being admitted to their inner circle. Scruggs attorney John Keker used the “wannabe” epithet the other day, saying he didn’t think Scruggs and Balducci “were close at all”, and it had earlier come to mind as I sought to convey the tone of the WSJ’s Oxford Christmas party quotes. Let’s review, then, some of the revelations of recent days:
- As a former principal in the Langston law firm, one of the state’s best known, Balducci had been appointed individually to represent the state of Mississippi as a Special Assistant Attorney General in two high-stakes and politically sensitive matters, the MCI tax dispute and the litigation against drugmaker Lilly seeking reimbursement for outlays on the psychiatric drug Zyprexa.
- According to Alan Lange at Y’All Politics, the agreement from AG Hood’s office in the MCI case retaining the Langston Law Firm refers to “its principal members, Joseph C. Langston and Timothy R. Balducci”, and Langston’s own advertising at the time referred to the firm as being “anchored by longterm partners Langston and Tim Balducci”.
- Scruggs retained Balducci to represent him in the highly sensitive Jones lawsuit, which aside from demanding millions of dollars carried the prospect of laying open the financial arrangements of the Scruggs Katrina Group to a curious world.
- Earlier, Scruggs retained Balducci to represent him in the long-running and highly sensitive Alwyn Luckey fee lawsuit, which per the Times culminated in an eventual $17 million payout to Luckey. The opposing attorney who handled that case for Luckey, Charles M. Merkel, Jr., told the New York Times: “Balducci made part of the closing arguments in one of my cases, and they sat at the same table. When I was negotiating with them, it was generally with Balducci.”
- In the Luckey case, when Scruggs sat for the fantastically sensitive 2004 deposition in which he was obliged to unveil explosive details of how he spread around money to advance the tobacco-Medicaid litigation — the episode that made his national reputation and brought him plus-or-minus a billion in fees — the lawyer on hand representing him, and peppering the proceedings with continual objections, was Balducci.
- After Balducci struck out with former state auditor Steve Patterson to form an independent practice, his firm listed of counsel political and legal notables that included a former governor of the state of Mississippi and the former DA of the county that includes most of Jackson.
P.S. For those unacquainted with the Beatrix Potter reference, the eponymous gray squirrel in her story gets into trouble with his fellows: “Timmy rolled over and over, and then turned tail and fled towards his nest, followed by a crowd of squirrels shouting — ‘Who’s-been digging-up my-nuts?'”
Yesterday’s sensational developments are covered at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Rossmiller, and AP/FoxNews.com. The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal quotes attorney Tony Farese, who among other connections to the principals represents Zach Scruggs, as asserting that the files taken relate to former Langston firm attorney Tim Balducci. However, some other reports, such as Sid Salter’s Clarion-Ledger blog, are indicating that the federal agents also removed files from Langston’s residence. (Update Dec. 12: Langston’s mother says these reports are erroneous, per Salter). Discussions are in progress at Y’AllPolitics and Lotus/folo.
Langston, a prominent figure on the Mississippi litigation scene, has been among lawyers representing Dickie Scruggs following his criminal indictment; the Sun-Herald notes that he also (with Balducci) represented Scruggs in the Alwyn Luckey fee dispute, known to be a topic of interest to federal prosecutors. Readers of this site may also remember Langston from the Foradori v. Captain D’s case two years ago, and more recently from the controversy over the MCI contigency-fee tax-negotiation case.
Speculation continues to mount that central bribery-scandal figure Timothy Balducci may be cooperating with prosecutors, and perhaps has been doing so for some time; Balducci had not yet been arraigned as of this weekend, and the indictment quotes extensively from conversations he held with other defendants, in addition to those that took place in Judge Lackey’s bugged chambers. (Peter Lattman and Ashby Jones, “In Scruggs Probe, Focus Turns to Another Lawyer”, WSJ, Dec. 1)(sub-only). In the latest of his extensive posts on the case, David Rossmiller adds to the picture: “From the verbatim quotes by Balducci given in the indictment, one logically can surmise that investigators had substantial recorded evidence that would have given them tremendous leverage over Balducci in obtaining his cooperation against the others.” In addition, certain elements in the indictment’s description of Balducci’s actions suggest that by mid-October, presumably flipped by investigators, he had begun taking steps that could be used to document targets’ knowing participation in the conspiracy (in particular, his return to Dickie Scruggs to finance a purported second-round bribe, and his statement in the presence of Zach Scruggs and Sidney Backstrom that “we paid for this ruling”).
Rossmiller also analyzes the underlying Jones v. Scruggs dispute over legal fees, in which the Jones firm, formerly one of the five participants in the Scruggs Katrina Group (SKG), alleges that it was “frozen out” and ejected by the remaining four firms, allotted only token fees after shouldering the substantial work of case briefing. Why would it have been advantageous to the Scruggs firm to have Judge Lackey shunt this dispute into arbitration? One key reason is that proceeding with a court battle, even if successful, might have risked exposing to the public many of the internal workings of SKG and perhaps also of Scruggs’s own firm. (Having read the Jones complaint, I would note that Jones was alleging that Scruggs had made a common practice of squeezing collaborating lawyers out of their fee shares in earlier, unrelated litigation during his career. The evidence put forth to support such an allegation, apart from whether it turned out to support a claim for punitive damages, might result in public airing of all sorts of messy and embarrassing episodes from the past.)
John Jones and Steve Funderberg, the lawyers whose firm sued Scruggs et al in the underlying Jones v. Scruggs suit, have given an interview to the Mississippi press; Jones says he knows Scruggs well and has represented him in court, but that the relationship changed drastically “when the money hit the table”; of go-between Balducci, Funderberg said, “Knowing Tim Balducci as I do, I am utterly flabbergasted that he would ever be a part of something like that or believe he could ever get away with something like that”. (Jon Kalahar, “Former Scruggs Colleague Says Money Changed Him”, WTOK, Nov. 30).
At Y’AllPolitics, Alan Lange traces many of the recurring connections between the dramatis personae and notes that the “whole crowd” was deeply involved in the much-criticized MCI contingency-fee back taxes negotiation, which we posted on at the time at Point of Law. “Attorney General Jim Hood allowed his largest campaign contributor, Joey Langston, to be the plaintiff lawyer and also appointed Tim Balducci as a Special Assistant Attorney General in that case”. Langston, for whom Balducci used to work, is now among lawyers representing Scruggs.
Some noteworthy reactions to the indictments: “This is maybe the worst day of my life,” says longtime Scruggs friend Don Barrett, quoted in an Associated Press piece that also rounds up some of the high points of Scruggs’ career (Michael Kunzelman, “Scruggs’ career in jeopardy”, AP/Hattiesburg American, Dec. 1). “I’m disappointed in him,” Katrina client Lyman Cumbest of Pascagoula, who’s suing State Farm, said of Scruggs. “With all the money he had, he didn’t have to bribe a judge. He’s got more money than he could ever spend.” (“FBI probe in judicial bribe case to continue”, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Nov. 30). Byron Steir at Mass Tort Litigation Blog comments (Nov. 30):
If true, all of these allegations suggest remarkable hubris in at least some of the top plaintiffs’ lawyers. One wonders about the effect of a lifestyle of private jets and multiple wins of multiple millions (or tens of millions) in fees. One also wonders about the effect of high-risk, winner-take-all, contingency fee litigation. Brash and aggressive personalities seem to thrive in such an environment — but they too must keep in mind that lawyers ultimately serve the client (not the other way around) and that no one (especially not the lawyer) is above the law.
And more: “It just boggles the mind,” said Biloxi trial lawyer Jack Denton. “Here is a man who has had an enormous amount of success, who reached a level very few attorneys, if any, have reached. Why would he risk everything over a legal dispute over attorneys’ fees?” David Rossmiller, quoted in the same story, has one possible reply, which is that people may begin reevaluating “how this amazingly successful man got to be so amazingly successful.” (Richard Fausset and Jenny Jarvie, “Katrina lawyer at the eye of a storm”, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 30)(& welcome Tom Kirkendall readers).
August 5-15 — On hiatus. We’ll be taking a break for the next week and a half or so. While we’re away, check out the world’s funniest police log (Arcata, Calif.); the Manhattan Institute (with which our editor is associated), whose email announcement list you really ought to be on, and whose Center for Legal Policy has been publishing a series of important papers on such topics as asbestos litigation, class actions, and forum-shopping; and of course this site’s very own archives, which date back to July 1999, and which you can search. See you (more likely than not) on Friday, Aug. 16. (DURABLE LINK)
August 2-4 — Lawyer’s suit against airline: my seatmate was too fat. “A pretrial hearing is scheduled in an Ashland attorney’s civil lawsuit against an airline that sold him a seat next to an obese man. Philip Shafer will meet representatives from Delta Air Lines Inc. in Ashland Municipal Court at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 19. Shafer seeks $9,500 from Delta. The suit stems from a two-hour November flight from New Orleans to Cincinnati. Shafer claims Delta breached its contract to provide him with a full seat and reasonable comfort because the obese man crowded onto his seat.” (Mark Caudill, “Ashland attorney sues over ‘jet jam'”, Mansfield, Ohio News Journal, Aug. 1) (see Dec. 20, 2000). (DURABLE LINK)
August 2-4 — Dense yet sieve-like. “The INS has no real idea who’s within America’s borders. One reason they have no idea is because it takes them a decade to process a routine green-card application by a highly-employable, high-earning, law-abiding citizen of America’s closest ally.” (Mark Steyn, National Post (Canada), Aug. 1). (DURABLE LINK)
August 2-4 — Welcome Fox News viewers/ readers. We suggested on Tuesday that the media should take a closer look at the tobacco-fee saga unfolding in the Manhattan courtroom of Justice Charles Ramos, and Fox News Channel wasted no time stepping into the breach; its news coverage gave this site’s editor generous time on screen to describe the case’s significance. However, none of the lawyers requesting the $13,000/hour fees were willing to go on camera to defend those fees — funny about that. (“Tobacco Settlement a Windfall for Lawyers”, Fox News, Aug. 1). And as if that weren’t enough publicity for one week, our editor is also interviewed on camera in a Fox News segment on school lawsuits (Liza Porteus, “Flunking Out of School? Get a Lawyer”, Fox News, Aug. 2) (DURABLE LINK)
August 2-4 — LexisOne “Site of the Month”. We’re one of the picks for the month of August at the major legal research service’s Legal Web Site Directory. (DURABLE LINK)
August 1 — You mean I’m suing that nice doctor? When Hazel Norton of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, read that the drug Propulsid might cause harm, she stopped taking it and signed up for a lawsuit. “‘Actually, I didn’t get hurt by Propulsid,’ Norton, who had the drug prescribed for her heartburn, said. But because she had taken the drug, she said she thought she could join a class-action lawsuit ‘and I might get a couple of thousand dollars.’
“The last thing she intended, Norton said, was for Kooyer to be sued. [Dr. Kirk Kooyer, who “arrived in the Mississippi Delta in 1994 to serve the poor.”] ‘He’s really a good doctor, very intelligent,’ said Norton, who’s been Kooyer’s patient since 1994. ‘He makes you feel so comfortable.’
“She said she intended for the drug company to be sued, but that lawyers told her it would be better for her case to sue Kooyer in order to keep the case in Mississippi. After finding out Kooyer had been sued, she said she wrote a letter to her attorneys, objecting. ‘I’m kind of upset. I do not want him leaving because of all the suits,’ she said. ‘If we run off all the doctors, what are the people gonna do?’ Kooyer was eventually dropped from the litigation but not before he made up his mind to leave Mississippi.” (Jerry Mitchell, “Tort reform: just what the doctor ordered?”, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Jul. 29 — many other good details)(more on Propulsid suits: Oct. 1, 2001; FindLaw). (DURABLE LINK)
August 1 — Sic ’em on Segway. As the Los Angeles Times reported July 23 (registration process too frustrating to give them a link), one law firm is already announcing plans to organize lawsuits against Segway (also known as “It” or “Ginger”), the smart scooter whose backers think it could revolutionize urban transportation (see Dec. 13, 2001). “We believe that the Segway HT is potentially a legal nightmare and will be the basis for many lawsuits, both from the corporate and consumer side,” explains the website, which sports the tastefully restrained name of Sue-It.com and was put up by a “successful corporate law firm” calling itself the “USA Immigration Law Center”.
Wait a minute. Immigration? Well, that might shed light on why the “successful corporate law firm” argues its case in language that sometimes reads as if it has been inexactly translated into English from a foreign tongue. “We are successful corporate law firm with offices in Washington, DC and Baltimore named the USAILC. We are planning to further specialize in new areas associated with suing It [Segway]. … [W]e view the potential onslaught of cases against It as more than just a basis for strong financial profits. … Get ready to Sue-It!” A bunch of wild and crazy guys, no? As for the website USAILC puts up to promote its major line of practice, among its first sentences is the following: “The United States of America Immigration Law Center is the official online home for US Immigration Legal Matters and Issues” — which brought us up short since we had always imagined that “the official” site was this one. (DURABLE LINK)
August 20 — On the diamond. “Every year, scores of softball leagues play nearly 200,000 organized games in New York City’s parks. Accountants, journalists, and actors have their own leagues, but few are as cutthroat and litigious as the Central Park Lawyers Softball League. …’There were many occasions where I found myself inundated with paperwork,’ [said a former Shea & Gould lawyer who used to serve as commissioner of the league], referring to the softball disputes he used to settle as commissioner. ‘People were filing briefs putting forth arguments, counter-arguments, and counter-counter arguments.'” (Colin Miner, “New Play at Home: ‘Call Me Safe — Or I’ll Sue You’ Lawyers Bunt, Steal, And Argue in Softball”, New York Sun, Aug. 12). (DURABLE LINK)
August 20 — Lord High Private Attorneys General. According to the Civil Justice Association of California, private lawyers in the Golden State have been sending demand letters en masse to small businesses alleging violations of state laws and demanding that attorneys’ fees be forked over as part of the resolution of the complaint. One such set of letters went out to Orange County auto repair shops accused of such misdeeds as failing to provide customers with written estimates; the law allows a private lawyer to bring an enforcement action in such a case even if he does not represent an actual customer of the shop. “Letters were sent to approximately 200 ethnic grocery and retail stores across the state of California in which they allegedly offered to sell or rent videos that violated the anti-pirating statute. According to the letter sent by the plaintiffs’ attorney, stores would be required to pay easily over ‘$10,000 plus restitution.’ The storeowner was then informed a few sentences later, by sending $2,000 ‘in the form of a bank draft or cashier check payable to Brar & Gamulin, LLP’ within 40 days, plus an agreement not to violate the statute again, the lawsuit would be settled.” (“Attorney General Urged to Investigate “Legal Shakedowns” Under State’s Unfair Competition Law”, Civil Justice Association of California, Jul. 11). (DURABLE LINK)
August 19 — “How to Spot a Personal Injury Mill”. In a personal injury mill, medical providers and attorneys conspire to provide unneeded medical services premised on the expectation of obtaining liability-driven compensation. QuackWatch offers eleven danger signs that in combination may indicate that a provider is operating as part of a mill. The exposure of knowing participants to fraud prosecutions is not the only reason for consumers to steer clear of such schemes: “False reports of medical diagnoses or loss of functionality can cause trouble for patients who later apply for a job, apply for insurance, or actually become disabled and apply for disability.” (Stephen Barrett, Charles Bender, and Frank P. Brennan, “Insurance Fraud: How to Spot a Personal Injury Mill”, QuackWatch). (DURABLE LINK)
August 19 — Anti-circumcision suit advances. Some opponents of infant male circumcision, not content with a gradual shift of opinion in their direction among American parents, now seek to enforce their preferences through litigation, even in the face of contrary parental wishes and continuing religious and customary sanction for the practice in many communities. “In July, North Dakota District Judge Cynthia Rothe-Seeger denied a motion for summary judgment by defendants in the Flatt v. Kantak circumcision case, and decided it will proceed to trial on February 3, 2003. The precedent setting decision confirms that a baby who is circumcised can [in this court, at least –ed.] sue his doctor when he reaches age of majority, even if there was parental consent for the circumcision, and even if the results are considered to be ‘normal.'” (“Circumcision case to proceed to trial”, Men’s News Daily, Aug. 1; see Feb. 28, 2001). (DURABLE LINK)
August 19 — Litigation good for the country? Law prof Carl T. Bogus, espousing a view that should win him some admirers among those who violently dislike the viewpoint of this page, has written a whole book entitled “Why Lawsuits Are Good for America.” He’s even dispatched a research assistant armed with a candy thermometer to prove that chain restaurants now furnish caffeinated take-out beverages at more suitably tepid temperatures than they used to, thanks to salutary fear of being hauled to court. But reviewer Michael McMenamin doesn’t find the resulting potion palatable (“Knave of torts”, Reason, Aug.). (DURABLE LINK)
August 16-18 — Wasn’t his fault for laying drunk under truck. West Virginia: “After a night of drinking, Dustin W. Bailey walked out of a Teays Valley bar, crossed the street and ended up underneath an idling tractor- trailer delivering supplies to a pizza restaurant. The truck killed him when the driver pulled forward. Now, nearly two years after the accident, Bailey’s mother … is suing the pizza restaurant, the truck’s driver, the truck’s owner and the bar’s owner because, she says, they all failed to take steps to keep her son alive.” Chief Deputy John Dailey of the sheriff’s department takes issue with the suit’s premises: “If anyone should be blamed for that death, it’s that guy who climbed under the truck.” (Toby Coleman, “Woman files suit over son’s death”, Charleston Daily Mail, Aug. 10). (DURABLE LINK)
August 16-18 — “Warning: …” “Do Not Read This Column While Water-Skiing. Do Not Set Fire To This Column In a Room Filled With Hydrogen”. As usual, one Dave Barry column is worth several treatises on product liability law (“Owners’ manual Step No. 1: Bang head against the wall”, Miami Herald, Jun. 30). (DURABLE LINK)
August 16-18 — “Accident claims salesman is sued over ‘fall'” “A door-to-door salesman for an accident claims firm is being sued after he allegedly fell on the six-year-old son of a potential client.” Salesman Jay Sims, representing a British firm that offers no-win, no-fee representation of injury claims, had been trying to persuade the Stanbury family of Long Eaton, Derbyshire to use the firm’s services. On departing the home he “began to play football with a group of children in the street” with resulting alleged injury to young Yohan Stanbury after which “the family decided to sue Mr Sims, using another no-win, no-fee accident claims firm.” The boy’s father “said he was taking action because Mr Sims’s company, the Accident Group, had refused to accept the incident even took place.” (Nick Britten, Daily Telegraph (U.K.), Aug. 15). (DURABLE LINK)
August 30-September 2 — Banish those desk photos of spouse at beach. A few years ago, when a Nebraska graduate student was targeted with a complaint from a university colleague for displaying a photo at his workplace of a woman in skimpy beachwear who happened to be his wife, some assumed it was a fluke case. But it wasn’t. “[D]esktop photographs of bikini-clad girlfriends or bare-chested husbands … could result in sexual harassment claims, lost productivity or a tarnished company image, say employment experts. ‘Employers have a duty to provide a work environment that is not objectionably and subjectively hostile, so the days of pinups in the locker room should be past,’ says John Lowe IV, an attorney in Kegler Brown Hill & Ritter’s Columbus labor and employment practice group.” Yep, they’re perfectly serious (Betsy Butler, “Dress code good strategy for desktop photo display”, Columbus Business First, Aug. 23). (DURABLE LINK)
August 30-September 2 — Intel sued in notorious county. Lawyers have filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status on behalf of personal computer owners “against Intel, Gateway, and Hewlett-Packard alleging the companies misled them into believing the Pentium 4 was a superior processor to Intel’s own Pentium III and AMD’s Athlon. The complaint — Neubauer et al v. Intel et al — was filed June 3 in the Third Judicial Circuit in Madison County, Illinois.” (Tom Mainelli, “Intel, PC Makers Sued Over P4 Performance”, PCWorld.com, Aug. 16; discussion, StorageReview forums). Litigation buffs will immediately recognize the chosen venue, Madison County, Ill., as being perhaps the most celebrated destination in the country for class-action “forum-shopping”, its courts recognized as unusually accommodating to the designs of the lawyers who file such suits. For one recent view of the county’s reputation, see: Adam Liptak, “Court Has Dubious Record as a Class-Action Leader”, New York Times, Aug. 15 (reg) (DURABLE LINK)
August 30-September 2 — Second Circuit: we mean business about stopping frivolous securities suits. The New York law firm of Jaroslawicz & Jaros “faces nearly $200,000 in sanctions after a federal appeals court said it had not received a severe enough penalty for an abusive securities fraud suit.” The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has weighed in three times on the case; among its rulings was that “the presence of some nonfrivolous claims in an otherwise frivolous complaint is not sufficient, standing alone, to establish that either the violation of Rule 11 [the main federal rule providing sanctions against meritless litigation] was de minimis or that the sanctions would create an unreasonable burden, for purposes of overcoming the statutory presumption of the PSLRA [Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995].” (Tom Perrotta, “2nd Circuit Imposes Stiff Fine in Securities Fraud Case”, New York Law Journal, Aug. 27). Mr. David Jaroslawicz, of Jaroslawicz & Jaros, last figured in these chronicles on Jan. 17, 2000, after he was quoted in the New York Observer as hoping to spearhead a wave of sexual-harassment suits against the then-flush firms of New York’s Silicon Alley. (DURABLE LINK)
August 29 — 7.000 missing colors, many of them crisply green. Last week Palm, the handheld computer maker, conceded that although it had advertised its m130 model, introduced in March, as displaying 65,536 different colors or color combinations, the actual number is a mere 58,621 — “approximately 11 percent fewer color combinations than we had originally believed”, as a Palm spokeswoman said. Attorneys with the Philadelphia law firm of Sheller, Ludwig & Bailey promptly filed a lawsuit in Santa Clara, Calif. Superior Court seeking class-action status on behalf of Palm’s customers, traumatized as they no doubt were by this hue shortfall. Legal experts predict that Palm will most likely settle rather than face the legal uncertainties and bad publicity of a protracted suit, but that customers shouldn’t expect anything more than coupons, future discounts and the like. “It’s hard to put a dollar figure on how much you have been damaged because your computer won’t do some particular feat you might never ask it to do anyway,” said Norman Spaulding, a professor at the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. (Elisa Batista, “Palm Handed Suit Over Colors”, Wired News, Aug. 24). (DURABLE LINK)
August 29 — Discrimination suit roundup. “The state of New Jersey has agreed to pay $250,000 to settle claims by three black men who said they were victims of racial profiling by the New Jersey state police. Attorney Stefan Presser of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said the settlement is the largest ever in a civil rights suit in which the victims were neither physically injured nor jailed” and says New Jersey should adopt it a model for other cases where black motorists were stopped and questioned without adequate justification. (Shannon P. Duffy, “New Jersey Settles Profiling Suit for $250,000”, The Legal Intelligencer, Aug. 22). The Taco Bell chain has agreed to pay $160,000 to settle the racial discrimination claims of a St. Louis family who, traveling 24-strong on a chartered bus through Cullman, Ala. in July 1998, waited about 15 minutes after requesting service. Each of the 24 will get about $1,000; the settlement “includes another $111,000 for attorney expenses and more than $17,000 in attorney fees.” (“Taco Bell settles discrimination lawsuit”, AP/NBC13.com, Aug. 26). And New York gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Cuomo, the former federal housing secretary and gun-suit backer, has called for legislation to make discrimination a felony — we’ll sleep a lot sounder knowing errant taco-chain managers are behind bars. (“Cuomo: Make Discrimination a Felony”, News12/The Bronx, Aug. 25). (DURABLE LINK)
August 28 — “Parents suing youth football league”. Texas: “Parents of a fifth-grade boy asked the courts Tuesday to throw a yellow penalty flag on Katy Youth Football over a rule change that switched players to different teams after practice started. In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, an attorney sued the Katy Youth Football league on behalf of his son. The boy had played with his grade-level team before being switched because of age to a junior high-level group with “significantly larger” players. Russell Van Beustring and his wife, Pamela Van Beustring, are asking a judge to order the league to revert to rules in place when children registered in May.” (Jo Ann Zuniga, Houston Chronicle, Aug. 20). (DURABLE LINK)
August 27 — Ford rollover verdict: you read it here first. We usually refrain from running items pointing out that we covered one or another litigation story before the major media picked it up. However, we can’t help noting for the record that we were three years (!) early in beating the New York Times to the facts of the case they gave front page treatment to yesterday, namely Romo v. Ford Motor, “the largest punitive award ever affirmed by an American court in a personal injury case: $290 million to the family of three people killed in the rollover of a Ford Bronco.” (Ford has asked the California Supreme Court to review an intermediate court’s upholding of the award.) We’re glad to see this case finally getting some attention, and glad to find the Times highlighting the same angle of the case that we found most striking, the very strange goings-on in the jury room: one juror recounted to her colleagues a gruesome, omen-like dream revealing Ford’s guilt, while another juror passed on to her colleagues the contents of a badly misremembered “60 Minutes” episode also supposedly establishing the carmaker’s malign state of mind. The Times sees all this as reason to hold a public debate about whether juries’ determinations of such issues as punitive damages are sufficiently reliable to count as law at all. We don’t mind having such a debate — we just wonder why we couldn’t have had it three years ago, when all the same facts were on the public record (see this site’s entries for Aug. 24, 1999 and Sept. 17-19, 1999). (Adam Liptak, “Debate Grows on Jury’s Role in Injury Cases”, New York Times, Aug. 26 (reg))(& update Oct. 24: California Supreme Court leaves verdict intact)
P.S. While on the subject of juror misconduct, Vanderbilt University law professor Nancy J. King found in a study “that modern-day judges, while acknowledging that sleeping jurors are a fairly common sight, do not see them as a serious threat to the fairness of trials.” So comforting! “In June, two members of the jury that convicted the accounting firm [Arthur Andersen] of obstruction of justice told Texas Lawyer, an affiliate of The National Law Journal and law.com, that two colleagues slept through parts of the six-week trial, and that the alleged nappers were in such a fog that one thought NASA was involved in the case and the other believed that prosecution star witness David Duncan was the one on trial.” In a 1987 case, Tanner v. United States, 483 U.S. 107, “a majority composed of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most conservative members” declined to overturn Anthony Tanner’s conviction for mail fraud despite testimony from two jurors that several of their colleagues had dozed off; one juror in his affidavit said “the jury was on one big party,” and that consumption of marijuana, liquor and cocaine at lunch all contributed to later drowsiness. (Gary Young, “Asleep at the Trial”, National Law Journal, Aug. 21). (DURABLE LINK)
August 27 — OxyContin wins one in West Virginia. A judge has dismissed a case filed against Purdue Pharma, maker of the pain medication, on behalf of the estate of a 41-year-old drug abuser who died after crushing the pills and injecting them into her bloodstream. The Charleston Daily Mail editorially draws some lessons about personal responsibility (Aug. 23)(see Apr. 10 and links from there). (DURABLE LINK)
August 26 — “Junk fax” suit demands $2 trillion. The Federal Communications Commission recently took enforcement action against the enterprise Fax.com for (it said) extensively violating the federal law banning unsolicited commercial fax-sending. Last week Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Kirsch (more) and another plaintiff filed suits demanding the federal statutory penalty of $500 for each unsolicited fax sent, trebled to a sum he estimates at $2.2 trillion; Kirsch says Fax.com boasts that it sends 3 million faxes a day. The gross national product of all countries on the globe stands at $29 trillion or thereabouts, which would leave the plaintiffs if successful with a claim on something like 7 percent of the earth’s annual output if they could collect it. And although it is not clear how many assets Fax.com will be found to have at the end of a suit, Kirsch is also suing for $500 per offending transmission Fax.com’s telecommunications provider, Cox Communications, as well as its advertisers. “‘We believe that there are companies with substantial assets in this group. We will seek treble damages of $1,500 per unsolicited fax from Fax.com and Cox Communications,’ Kirsch said in a statement.” (Bob Egelko, “2 trillion junk fax suit: Silicon Valley man demands Fax.com end unsolicited messages”, San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 22; Andrew Quinn, “Lawsuits Seek $2.2 Trillion over ‘Junk’ Faxes”, Reuters/IEEE Spectrum, Aug. 23). Cox Communications is a NYSE-listed company with assets of $25 billion, according to Fortune. More on junk-fax suits as “Powerball for the clever”: July 24, 2001 and links from there. Fax.com’s own website seems to be doing its best to portray the company as dedicated to charitable endeavors for the recovery of missing children, with a remarkable lack of emphasis on how it actually makes its money. (DURABLE LINK)
August 26 — R.I.: no more cheap car leases? “A Rhode Island jury has held a car-leasing company vicariously liable for the negligence of a leased car driver, resulting in a $28 million personal injury award. The verdict against the Chase Manhattan Automotive Finance Corp. — one of the largest personal injury verdicts in the state’s history — followed the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s April ruling that long-term car-leasing companies can be held liable for the actions of leased car operators under the state’s owner and lessor liability statutes.” A lawyer for Chase warned of the impact on consumers: “‘There are about one million people in Rhode Island,’ he said. ‘Assuming only 50,000 people lease their cars, leasing can become prohibitively expensive’ if lessors have to pass on the cost of multimillion-dollar verdicts.” (Annie Hsia, “Car-Leasing Company Held Liable in Crash”, National Law Journal, Aug. 19). Updates: see Mar. 12-14 and May 21, 2003. (DURABLE LINK)
August 23-25 — Prominent French author sued for “insulting Islam”. In France, the latest chapter in the hate-speech-laws vs. free-speech saga: “Prize-winning French novelist Michel Houellebecq is being sued by four Islamic organisations in Paris after making ‘insulting’ remarks about the religion in an interview about his latest book. The action against Mr Houellebecq, 44, is being launched on 17 September by plaintiffs including Saudi Arabia’s World Islamic League and the Mosque of Paris.” The plaintiffs have also brought charges against a literary magazine, Lire, in which Mr. Houellebecq reportedly said that reading the Koran is “so depressing” and called Islam “the stupidest religion”. (“Author sued over Islam ‘insult'”, BBC, Aug. 22)(see Jun. 11-12). Update Oct. 25-27: Houellebecq acquitted. (DURABLE LINK)
August 23-25 — Canada: cash demanded for drug users and panhandlers inconvenienced by film crews. In Vancouver, B.C., which has become a popular site for Hollywood location filming, a group representing sex workers, drug users and homeless people has demanded compensation for film crews’ tendency to displace or disrupt illegal street activity. “The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, which represents about 1,000 residents of the seedy Downtown Eastside, has sent a letter demanding compensation to 30 production firms. They include Club Six Prods., currently filming MGM’s ‘Agent Cody Banks’ starring Frankie Muniz and Angie Harmon.” The letter states: “Sex trade workers must be compensated for displacement they experience at your hands in the same manner you would compensate a business if you were to use their locale during operating hours. The same must hold true for homeless people you push from beneath a bridge or doorway, and drug users you move from a park.” The letter also asks for financial compensation for loss of residents’ panhandling opportunities. (Don Townson, “Canadian Hookers Campaign Against Hollywood”, Variety/Yahoo, Aug. 21). (DURABLE LINK)
August 23-25 — Don’t ban peanut butter from schools. A small number of kids have serious peanut allergies, and schools — under pressure from activist parents and fearful of litigation — are beginning to ban the nutritious foodstuff from their cafeterias and halls. Don’t be stampeded, advises columnist Dennis Prager: there would be less overall disruption to children as a group if schools just made a point of keeping a stock of epinephrine, the antidote to allergic shock, on hand (syndicated/Town Hall, Aug. 21). (DURABLE LINK)
August 22 — Defying the link-banners. David Sorkin, “associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Ill., is the man behind Don’t Link to Us, a Web site that exists merely to flout what it terms ‘stupid linking policies.’ Sorkin’s site was launched in reaction to recent legal decisions in which courts upheld Web site terms and conditions that prohibited or restricted links,” including a decision in which a Danish court ruled that the NewsBooster site could not link to internal story pages within various news organizations’ sites. (Paul Festa, “Site fights ‘stupid linking'”, ZDNet News, Aug. 21). (DURABLE LINK)
August 22 — Jury clobbers NYC with $21 million slip/fall verdict. “A Manhattan jury has awarded more than $21 million to a woman who tripped over a four-inch protrusion of a broken parking sign and suffered serious head injuries as a result — the largest slip-and-fall verdict ever leveled against the city. Aides to Mayor Bloomberg are calling the verdict excessive, and have vowed to use it to illustrate why limits need to be placed on the city’s liability in personal injury cases.” (Errol Louis, “A Record Liability Verdict Is Brought In Against City”, New York Sun, Aug. 21). More coverage: Susan Huners, “Sidewalk Hazard Costs NYC $21 Million”, National Law Journal, Sept. 12. (DURABLE LINK)
August 22 — We did it all for the public health, cont’d. Although fewer than 300 acres of tobacco are grown in Alabama, “Tobacco farmers in Alabama have received $500,000 from the national tobacco settlement. … [Meanwhile,] only $350,000 is being spent for anti-smoking programs, with most of that aimed at young people. Let that sink in: More money from Alabama’s portion of the national tobacco settlement goes to people who grow tobacco than to those who are trying to get people to kick their tobacco habits.” (“Strange truths” (editorial), Birmingham News, Aug. 21). (DURABLE LINK)
August 21 — Judge questions “shotgun” naming of 282 defendants in trailer-mold case. According to a May 22 report in the Baton Rouge Advocate, the Fifth Circuit has agreed to examine a dispute between Lafayette, La. attorney Barry Domingue and U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon, who is hearing a case filed by Domingue against no fewer than 282 manufacturers. The lawsuit, which seeks certification as a class action, purports to represent plaintiffs who “unknowingly bought poorly made manufactured homes defective in design, composition and construction. The lawsuit alleges that the defective design allowed condensation to create formation of a toxic mold in the walls, making occupants sick. The companies have denied that they produce an inferior product, and they are seeking dismissal of the case. During a hearing last month, Melancon ordered Domingue to disclose to the court all investigative files and any other materials used to develop the lawsuit. The judge said Domingue would have to explain why he included the 282 companies as defendants, even though many of them haven’t done business in Louisiana and many others have gone bankrupt. The judge said Domingue would be required to pay legal fees of any companies included in the lawsuit without proper justification.” The judge also expressed skepticism toward Domingue’s contention that the manufacturers had collectively conspired to conceal the dangers of mold in trailers and were thus each open to suit. Domingue contends that Judge Melancon has become an advocate for the defense side in the litigation. (Bruce Schultz, “Lawyer attacks critical judge in mobile-home suit”, Baton Rouge Advocate, May 22). (DURABLE LINK)