|Jesse P. Evans III|
But the story does not end there. I know from first-hand experience, and from reporting on cases of other everyday Alabamians, that lawyers make a habit of stealing from non-wealthy clients, too. They just go about it in a little different way.
With middle-class clients, it might not be a matter of direct overbilling. Rather, lawyers will bill steadily while hiding the fact that they are not representing their clients' best interests. Such lawyers have a legal duty to zealously represent the person who is paying them, but instead they are more concerned with the desires of the judge, opposing counsel, the local bar, or maybe all three.
As opposed to "overbilling," you might call this "underlawyering." The client thinks he is being represented--after all, he's paying the bills--but he really isn't. And he's likely to get a lousy outcome, the one chosen for him by what I call "the legal tribe."
Whatever you call them, overbilling and underlawyering amount to glorified theft. And we learned this week that it probably happens in the legal world far more often--and in a much more brazen fashion--than most of us might imagine.
You can rest assured the legal tribe never intended for this issue to make national headlines. But it all started when DLA Piper, which bills itself as the world's largest law firm, sued a New York businessman named Adam H. Victor for $675,000 in legal bills. Victor, an energy-industry executive, fought back by filing a counterclaim and accusing the law firm of a "sweeping practice of overbilling."
Discovery in the counterclaim showed that Mr. Victor was on target. Internal correspondence from DLA Piper revealed lawyers joking about the firm's habit of cheating its own clients. From reporter Peter Lattman, of The New York Times:
Mr. Victor’s feud with DLA Piper began after he retained the firm in April 2010 to prepare a bankruptcy filing for one of his companies. A month after the filing, a lawyer at the firm warned colleagues that the businessman’s bill was mounting.
“I hear we are already 200k over our estimate — that’s Team DLA Piper!” wrote Erich P. Eisenegger, a lawyer at the firm.
Another DLA Piper lawyer, Christopher Thomson, replied, noting that a third colleague, Vincent J. Roldan, had been enlisted to work on the matter.
“Now Vince has random people working full time on random research projects in standard ‘churn that bill, baby!’ mode,” Mr. Thomson wrote. “That bill shall know no limits.”
"Churn that bill, baby!" might become the equivalent of "Remember the Alamo!" for citizens who are fighting unscrupulous lawyers. And I know what such a fight is like--I've spent more than 10 years on the front line.
As regular readers know, the legal headaches for Mrs. Schnauzer and me began when a troublesome neighbor named Mike McGarity, he of the extensive criminal record, filed a bogus lawsuit against me over a property-related matter. I hired Jesse P. Evans III, a Birmingham lawyer who is noted for his expertise in property law--in fact, he has written a textbook called Alabama Property Rights and Remedies. At the time, Evans was a partner with the firm of Lange Simpson Robinson and Somerville (now Adams and Reese/Lange Simpson), and he handed much of the work on our case over to a junior attorney named Michael B. Odom.
Evans and Odom since have shuffled over to the Birmingham firm of Haskell Slaughter. Experience has taught me this pair is a con-man tag team, regardless of where they lay their hats.
Did Evans and Odom cheat me by overbilling? No, although their monthly invoices were a major burden on our middle-class finances. But this was a classic case of underlawyering. Evans and Odom went through all of the "motions" (pardon the pun) of making it appear they were representing my best interests. They filed a motion to dismiss and two motions for summary judgment--all of which were denied by corrupt Shelby County Circuit Judge J. Michael Joiner, who now resides on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
It took almost 15 months, but I finally realized Evans and Odom were not really representing me. And they almost certainly were pulling a scam from the outset. What were the signs? I presented pretty much all of them in an e-mail to Michael Odom dated Aug. 15, 2002. (The e-mail can be viewed at the end of this post.)
I wrote the e-mail after I had fired the lawyers from my case and demanded a refund totaling $11,619.16--the full amount I paid Lange Simpson during the course of their "representation." I never received a penny from these high-priced, downtown lawyers, but I had the pleasure of figuring out their game--they simply were going along with a scheme that Judge Joiner had set in motion, along with the neighbor's attorney, the wildly corrupt Willliam E. Swatek.
|Michael B. Odom|
*Refusal to file a counterclaim--In my first meeting with Jesse Evans, in January 2001, I told him that the neighbor, Mike McGarity, had built a fence on our property, essentially stealing some 400 square feet of land that belonged to us. It's hard to imagine a more clear case for civil trespass, which needed to be stated in a counterclaim. We also had viable grounds for nuisance and abuse of process, which could have been asserted in a counterclaim. In the early weeks after Michael Odom began working on our case, I questioned him multiple times about the need to file a counterclaim because (1) We needed to seek damages for the wrongs against us; (2) We needed to make sure we were not in a defensive position throughout the proceedings. After Judge Joiner unlawfully denied our two motions for summary judgment--even though Swatek did not respond with any timely or admissible evidence on either one--I met with Evans and Odom on July 25, 2002, and demanded that we file a counterclaim. They flat-out refused, and that's when I knew they were not working on my behalf--and probably had not been the entire time.
* Filing a second motion for summary judgment--McGarity, via his lawyer Swatek, filed no timely or admissible evidence to counter our affidavits on the first motion for summary judgment (MSJ). Our affidavits were filled with material evidence, countering McGarity's claim of malicious prosecution against me--and under Alabama law, summary judgment had to be granted and the case dismissed. A judge's finding on summary judgment is considered a "nondiscretionary" ruling, and Rule 56(e) of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure spells out the process. Case law also makes it clear:
When a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment offers no evidence to contradict that presented by the movant, trial court MUST consider the movant's evidence uncontroverted, with no genuine issue of material fact existing." Voyager Guar. Ins. Co., Inc. v. Brown 631 So. 2d 848 (Ala., 1993).
When Judge Joiner denied our first MSJ--which, by law, had to be granted--Evans and Odom surely knew I was being railroaded, and a second MSJ would be a waste of time and money. But they filed one anyway, and again, it was denied--even though, this time, Swatek made no response whatsoever for his client.
What did this little exercise in legal futility cost me? Well, Michael Odom worked on the second MSJ in December 2001 and January 2002. My bills for those months were $1,204 and $902, respectively--coming to a total of $2,106.
How much did I spend altogether on MSJs? Most of the work on the first one came in August 2001. My bill for that month was $2,312, which means my total outlay on summary judgment motions was $4,418.
What did I get for them? Absolutely nothing. For the same amount of money, or less, we could have filed a counterclaim and conducted discovery that might have forced a settlement. But I now know that Jesse Evans didn't want to file a counterclaim because that, indeed, would have meant discovery--and the judge on our case did not want that.
Joiner, I feel certain, did not want me to become privy to information about how Mike McGarity came to be my next-door neighbor via an under-the-table deal with Briarwood Presbyterian Church and a real-estate agent named Phyllis Tinsley. Judge Joiner almost certainly did not want me to know that the whole scam was executed so that Briarwood Christian High School could offer a sweetheart deal to keep Fred Yancey, its highly successful football coach and our neighbor before he moved to a house on school property--and Mike McGarity entered our lives.
Did Jesse Evans and Michael Odom overbill me, as the DLA Piper lawyers did with Adam Victor? Nope, but they did underlawyer me, charging the hourly rate they had stated, but acting in a way that they knew would get me nowhere.
I've seen similar behavior by lawyers in other cases I've reported here at Legal Schnauzer. Two classic examples are the divorce cases involving Birmingham resident Sherry Carroll Rollins and Clanton resident Bonnie Cahalane (Knox) Wyatt. Ms. Rollins and Ms. Wyatt spent well into the six figures on divorce lawyers, and what did they get? Sherry Rollins wound up with a divorce judgment, thanks to Shelby County Circuit Judge D. Al Crowson, that was so unlawful and one-sided that she and her two daughters have been on and off food stamps. Bonnie Wyatt received a bogus ruling from Chilton County
Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds that led to her being unlawfully jailed for roughly five months last year. Since her release from jail, she has unlawfully been forced to put her house up for sale.
How is the middle class defined in America these days? I'm not sure, but let's assume it means you have a household income between $35,000 and $75,000. If you fit in that category and someday need legal services--for a divorce, estate matter, personal injury, consumer issue, employment discrimination, you name it--you will be in grave danger of being "underlawyered."
How can you tell if that is happening to you? The following e-mail might provide insight on what to look for. It provides details of how Jesse Evans and Michael Odom mishandled my case--and states my grounds for demanding a refund. It's rather lengthy, and I will spotlight the key points in an upcoming post.
But for now, let's consider this: If you take your car to a mechanic, only to get home and discover it hasn't been fixed, what do you do? You take it back to the mechanic and demand that he fix it, right? What happens if he says you should be content with his sorry performance and refuses to do anything about it? You demand your money back, right?
Jesse Evans and Michael Odom apparently think lawyers are in the rarefied air, above mechanics and all of us regular folks. They think lawyers should be allowed to not do the job you pay for--and still keep your money. That's not how I see it, and here is an e-mail where I made my feelings abundantly clear to Michael Odom.