Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Birmingham lawyer Burt Newsome seeks U.S. Supreme Court review in case involving allegations of a plot to frame him for a crime and ruin his practice

Burt Newsome

Birmingham attorney Burt Newsome is seeking review with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) in a case alleging individuals connected to the Balch & Bingham law firm conspired to frame him for a crime and then used that information in an effort to steal a chunk of his banking-related work and ruin his practice.

Newsome, the proprietor of Newsome Law LLC in North Shelby County, alleges that former Balch attorney Clark Cooper was a central figure in the conspiracy, and the conspirators used prepaid "burner phones" to communicate about their plans and hide those conversations from Newsome and authorities. The matter has become known as the Newsome Conspiracy Case.

Alexandra Siskopoulos, an attorney from New York City, filed a petition for a writ of certiorari (dated July 17, 2021) on Newsome's behalf. She asks the high court to review the Alabama Supreme Court's judgment in the case, or in the alternative,  summarily reverse the decision and judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 16.

Newsome faces an uphill battle to have the high court hear his case. According to uscourts.gov, SCOTUS hears 100 to 150 of the 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year. That means any individual case has about a 2.14-percent chance of being heard, at most.

That's not the only challenge appellants face. Consider this language from Rule 10 of the U.S. Supreme Court:

A petition for a writ of certiorari is rarely granted when the asserted error consists of erroneous factual findings or the misapplication of a properly stated rule of law.

In other words, SCOTUS is not in the business of correcting errors that lower courts -- state or federal -- make. In Newsome's case, there is substantial evidence that the Jefferson County Circuit Court and the Alabama Supreme Court made numerous errors of fact and law. But those likely will not help get SCOTUS to hear his case.

So, what might prompt the high court to hear Newsome's case? What factors does SCOTUS weigh in determining whether to hear a case. The answers to those questions also can be found at Rule 10:

Review on a writ of certiorari is not a matter of right, but of judicial discretion. A petition for a writ of certiorari will be granted only for compelling reasons. The following, although neither controlling nor fully measuring the Court's discretion, indicate the character of the reasons the Court considers:

  • (a) a United States court of appeals has entered a decision in conflict with the decision of another United States court of appeals on the same important matter; has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with a decision by a state court of last resort; or has so far departed from the accepted and usual course of judicial proceedings, or sanctioned such a departure by a lower court, as to call for an exercise of this Court's supervisory power;
  • (b) a state court of last resort has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with the decision of another state court of last resort or of a United States court of appeals;
  • (c) a state court or a United States court of appeals has decided an important question of federal law that has not been, but should be, settled by this Court, or has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with relevant decisions of this Court.

What does that mean? SCOTUS is about consistent application of the law across state lines -- in both federal and state jurisdictions. It looks for issues where federal circuit courts have split, state supreme courts have split, or either of those courts has failed to follow binding precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Siskopoulos' petition takes those standards into account, largely ignoring  alleged errors Alabama courts made while focusing on issues that have been decided in varying ways across the country. In short, the Newsome petition seeks clarity on issues that have been inconsistently decided in Alabama -- and beyond. While that strategy might seem odd to the layperson, it clearly is the proper way to approach SCOTUS.

Before we examine the arguments Siskopoulos makes, let's take a look at the facts of the case -- as laid out in her petition. Note: It paints an ugly and disturbing picture of how law is, or at least can be, practiced in Alabama. (The full petition, with exhibits, is embedded at the end of this post; citations omitted for ease of reading.):

Petitioner Burt W. Newsome is an attorney in the State of Alabama who owns and operates Newsome Law, LLC. As part of his legal practice,  Petitioner Newsome represents banks in collection actions. In 2012, Petitioner Newsome on behalf of his banking client obtained a judgment against a Ms. Lawson and began collection efforts. After noticing Ms. Lawson’s post-judgment deposition and garnishing her wages, Ms. Lawson’s common-law husband, Alfred Seier threatened Petitioner Newsome. In January 2012, Alfred Seier parked his vehicle adjacent to Petitioner Newsome’s vehicle in the parking lot of Petitioner Newsome’s law practice. When Petitioner Newsome went to his vehicle, Alfred Seier pointed a gun at Petitioner Newsome and told him “never to f**k with his wife again.” Petitioner Newsome was unarmed and escaped by dodging behind his vehicle and running to the back door of his office. Petitioner Newsome immediately called the authorities and filed charges against Alfred Seier.

Thereafter, Alfred Seier’s brother Claiborne Seier, who is also an attorney, called Petitioner Newsome’s office insisting that Petitioner Newsome drop the criminal charges against his brother explaining that his brother was dying from cancer. Petitioner Newsome refused to drop the charges making Claiborne Seier angry. During this time, Petitioner Newsome’s banking client went on lockdown fearing that their employees could be killed by Alfred Seier. The bank, thereafter, sold the debt of Ms. Lawson to Claiborne Seier at a discounted rate. At the criminal trial of Alfred Seier, Claiborne Seier again urged Petitioner Newsome to drop the charges against his brother. When Petitioner Newsome refused, Claiborne Seier threatened Petitioner Newsome that “he was going to get him.” Alfred Seier was convicted of menacing and died a few months later. Later that year, in December 2012, Petitioner Newsome found himself in an eerily similar situation to the events that unfolded with Alfred Seier. Petitioner Newsome’s law office shares a parking lot with a dental office. Defendant John Bullock arrived at the parking lot at 6:30 a.m. Defendant Bullock purportedly arrived an hour and half early for a dental appointment. While initially not parked by Petitioner Newsome’s vehicle, by 7:30 a.m., John Bullock’s vehicle was parked adjacent to Newsome’s vehicle in a manner identical to the Alfred Seier gun threat incident. When Petitioner Newsome went to his car, Defendant Bullock quickly opened his car door blocking Newsome from getting into his car. The parking and the way Bullock exited his vehicle were identical to the events that unfolded with Alfred Seier. Feeling threatened, Petitioner Newsome pulled out a handgun, held it by his side and instructed Bullock to return to his vehicle until Newsome left the parking lot. Defendant Bullock moved out of the way and Newsome got in his car and left for court. 

John Bullock’s testimony as to the events thereafter is unclear. Bullock at one point testified that he called the police when he went into the dentist office, but later stated that he called the police after he came out of his dental appointment..According to the police report, Bullock stated he did not know Newsome and identified Newsome after being shown a driver’s license photograph. Immediately after the incident, however, Bullock told his dentist that Newsome was his assailant. Approximately, one month after the incident, on January 14, 2013, Bullock filed a criminal complaint against Newsome for menacing. A few months later, on May 2, 2013, Newsome was stopped for speeding, and was arrested on the menacing warrant. Newsome was taken into custody and released later that day.  Shortly after Newsome was released and returned to his office, Defendant Claiborne Seier called Newsome’s law office. There was no apparent reason for the call. 

At this point, Balch & Bingham enters the picture, and the plot thickens:

Two days after Newsome’s arrest, Defendant Clark A. Cooper, emailed a representative of a bank about Newsome’s arrest. Defendant Cooper is an attorney who was a partner at the law firm of Defendant Balch & Bingham, LLP. Defendant Cooper and his former firm represent some of the same banking clients as Petitioner Newsome. This email was sent to a client both Newsome and Cooper represented. Cooper insinuated that the arrest could affect Newsome’s legal license. In one email, Cooper emailed a copy of Newsome’s  mugshot and stated, “Have you seen this? Not sure how it’s going to affect his law license. Bizarre.” In a second email, Cooper quoted the menacing statute and stated, “It is a class B misdemeanor. Not sure how this will affect his law license.”This resulted in the bank representative questioning Petitioner Newsome’s ability to practice law and he stopped sending Newsome case files for a period of time. In the underlying proceedings, Defendant Cooper had differing stories as to how and when he learned of Newsome’s arrest. In an unsworn affidavit, he stated he learned of the arrest on the Saturday that he sent the emails to the bank representative. In a sworn deposition, he claimed he learned of the arrest on either Thursday or Friday which would have been the day of the arrest or the day after. In another unsworn affidavit, Cooper claimed he learned of the arrest by seeing Newsome’s mugshot on a publicly available website. In a sworn deposition, however, Cooper claimed he learned the information from a paralegal at Balch & Bingham who either sent him a copy or printed the information for him.

In November 2013, Petitioner Newsome appeared in the District Court of Shelby County for his criminal trial. The judge instructed the parties to discuss the case in a separate room. Petitioner Newsome set forth that during the discussions Defendant Bullock told everyone in the room he was simply going to a dentist’s appointment when the incident took place. Newsome  asserted that although Bullock wanted Newsome to plead guilty, Newsome refused.Thereafter, Bullock asserted he was dropping the charges. Relying on Bullock’s claim that he was simply going to a dentist’s appointment, Newsome signed a Dismissal & Release form provided. The form order states “STATE OF ALABAMA V. Burton Wheeler Newsome. CASE NO. DC 2013-1434. This matter comes before the Court by specific AGREEMENT of the parties.” John Bullock is not a named party in the criminal case. The form order contains four alternate dispositional paragraphs. The only paragraph checked in this criminal case provided that the case was continued until April 2014 and then to be dismissed with prejudice provided that the defendant had no further arrests. The paragraphs regarding pre-trial diversion and the paragraphs regarding restitution were not checked as they were not applicable to Newsome’s dismissal agreement.The form order also contained a release of all of Newsome’s civil and criminal claims against countless governmental entities as well as nongovernmental entities, complainants and potential witnesses. On April 4, 2014, the district court dismissed the criminal case against Newsome with prejudice.

On January 14, 2015, Petitioner Newsome filed a civil lawsuit from which this Petition arises. Petitioner Newsome and his law firm Newsome Law, LLC sued attorney Clark A. Cooper, Mr. Cooper’s former law firm Balch & Bingham, LLP, John W. Bullock, and Claiborne Seier in the Jefferson Circuit Court Court “alleging that the defendants combined to have Newsome arrested on a false charge with the intent of damaging his reputation and law practice.” During discovery, Petitioners through an amended complaint named Don Gottier as an additional defendant. Petitioners alleged, “as later amended, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, false imprisonment, the tort of outrage, defamation, invasion of privacy, and multiple counts of conspiracy and intentional interference with a business relationship.” App.9. Petitioners alleged that the Defendants conspired “to set Newsome up to be arrested so that Cooper could then take Newsome’s clients on behalf of Balch and Seier could get revenge upon Newsome for filing a menacing charge against Alfred.” On February 13, 2015, Defendant Seier filed a motion to dismiss arguing that Petitioner’s claims had no factual basis and “the claims were barred by the release clause in the D&R [Dismissal & Release] order because the claims were related to Newsome’s menacing case.”

The Dismissal & Release order (D & R) and a related expungement regarding Newsome's criminal case would become central to his state-court lawsuit -- and his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. We will examine those issues next.

(To be continued)



Anonymous said...

This sounds like a case where Alabama courts didn't look closely enough at certain actions. This whole chain of events started when Alfred Seier went to Newsome's office and threatened him with a gun for trying to collect on a debt that Seier's wife allegedly owed. You just don't go to a lawyer's office, point a gun at him and say, "Never f--k with my wife again." It's just dumb, especially when the debt apparently did not even involve Seier. When faced with a fairly complex chain of events, I'm a big believer in taking a close look at what started it. In this case, it was Alfred Seier.

legalschnauzer said...

!9:48 --
I think your approach is reasonable. It appears beyond doubt that this started with a dumb act by Alfred Seier and escalated because of dumb acts by his brother, Claiborne Seier -- a lawyer who should know better. Burt Newsome, it seems to me, was minding his own business, doing what collection attorneys do. I can understand someone not being pleased about receiving collection letters, but you don't threaten a lawyer with bodily harm because of it.

legalschnauzer said...

I wonder if the Seiers are hotheads of longstanding or these acts are out of character for them. I hope it's the latter. Alfred Seier was not well and perhaps was not in his normal state of mind. But Claiborne Seier, as an attorney, should have known Newsome was just doing his job and tried to calm the waters instead of making them more choppy.

This, of course, does not prove a conspiracy involving Balch & Bingham and others to get Newsome. But it does seem to suggest that things started getting out of hand with the Seiers.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Balch & Bingham fire Clark Cooper? I wonder why. I wonder if it had anything to do with the Newsome case.

legalschnauzer said...

Yes, Balch did fire Cooper, and I'm not sure a reason ever has been clearly revealed. I don't know if it had anything to do with the Newsome matter.

legalschnauzer said...

Banbalch.com had the following report on Cooper's firing. To my knowledge, it's the most detailed examination of the subject:

Unprofessional Conduct?

Clark A. Cooper, a partner of Balch & Bingham and member of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence, was allegedly abruptly terminated on the morning of March 3, 2017 by Balch.

Cooper is now selling mattresses.

Cooper had distributed emails of Newsome’s mugshot only hours after Newsome was falsely arrested and booked–even sending one out on a Saturday afternoon.

Prior to the false arrest, Cooper had been soliciting Newsome’s clients directly, an apparent violation of professional conduct.

On a side note, interestingly Cooper was sued in 2013 by the Alabama State Attorney General in his role as a board member of an Alabama educational scholarship trust for wrongly limiting students to only a small number of universities, including only 1 of the 12 historically black universities in Alabama. Cooper resigned from the board the day after the suit was filed.

Below are links to thorough affidavit of Veronica Root, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame who reviewed the alleged breaches of professional conduct by Clark A. Cooper. The affidavit has been divided into six parts due to size. The alleged conduct is unbecoming of a prestigious law firm like Balch.


Anonymous said...

If the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't want to correct the mistakes of federal and state appellate courts, maybe we need another kind of court that will.

legalschnauzer said...

You said a mouthful, @12:39, and I could not agree with you more. Here is our current system, and it explains, in part, why justice in America is so badly broken: If your state court of appeals or supreme court botches your case, your only recourse is SCOTUS. If your federal district court botches your case, your only recourse is SCOTUS. Given that SCOTUS only hears a little over 2 percent of the cases it receives, you essentially have no recourse at all. And here is the big gut punch: state and federal appellate courts get a lot of cases wrong -- on the law, the facts, or both. It happens a lot, almost routinely, and far bigger legal minds than mine say so.

I don't like the idea and expense of another layer of lawyer/judges. And if trial and appellate courts did their jobs, we wouldn't need one. But these lower courts don't do their jobs, and they are filled with political hacks who knowingly rule contrary to law. In blunt terms, they are crooks, and lots of lawyers know it.

The mainstream press fail miserably at exposing judicial corruption, so we essentially have an "honor system" run by dishonorable people. That doesn't work.

legalschnauzer said...

Here is another gut punch: If a state court botches your case, at the trial and appellate levels -- if they trample your constitutional rights in the process (due process, equal protection, etc.) -- your only recourse is SCOTUS. That's because of a little known piece of law called the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine. It essentially holds that if a state court violates your federal rights, your only recourse is SCOTUS. It is the only federal court that can hear a case involving butchery of your federal rights. Again, we know SCOTUS only hears about 2 percent of cases it receives. That means you really have no recourse at all. Even worse, it essentially means your constitutional rights don't exist in state court; you don't have any.

Experiences teaches me that federal district judges are not all that busy, certainly not compared to their brethren in state courts, and they could handle constitutional challenges to botched state-court rulings. Of course, that wouldn't be necessary if state judges did their jobs, but many of them are elected hacks, and they are bad at their jobs -- terrible in some cases.

Congress should have overturned Rooker-Feldman years ago, but it hasn't. That the doctrine stilll exists is an outrage.

legalschnauzer said...

What do do? My best idea is the installation of citizen review boards. The system already is stuffed with lawyers, and they've proven they can't handle the responsibility. I think we need citizen boards -- with special training in the law and the authority to overrule bad judges and hold them accountable.

legalschnauzer said...

I mentioned above the big legal minds who have acknowledged that our guards are broken. The best example I know of is the late Monroe Freeman, who was a professor at hofstra School of Law and is considered the father of legal ethics as a field of academic study. Said Freedman in a 1989 speech:

"Frankly, I have had more than enough of judicial opinions that bear no relationship whatsoever to the cases that have been filed and argued before the judges.

I am talking about judicial opinions that falsify the facts of the cases that have been argued, judicial opinions that make disingenuous use or omission of material authorities, judicial opinions that cover up these things with no-publication and no-citation rules.”


legalschnauzer said...

In terms of this post, here is the bottom line: If Alabama state courts had done their jobs, Burt Newsome wouldn't have to go through the trouble and expense of filing a U.S. Supreme Court appeal. It's ridiculous that he's been put in that position.