John O’Quinn scandal update

by Ted Frank on June 9, 2007

As we reported in April, trial lawyer John O’Quinn is subject to a potential contempt hearing for allegedly improperly withholding $18.9 million of settlement money from his breast implant clients. It turns out that this wasn’t the first mention of the scandal in Overlawyered. In August 1999, Walter reported:

As one of the wealthiest and most successful plaintiff’s lawyers ever, Houston’s John O’Quinn has been known to call press conferences at which he’s leveled charges highly damaging to his opponents’ reputations, accusing them (for example) of conspiring to “remain silent, conceal or suppress information” about problems with their products and operations. So what happened June 4 when O’Quinn was himself sued by a group of unhappy former breast-implant clients seeking class-action status against him? As Brenda Jeffreys reported in the June 14 Texas Lawyer, O’Quinn “didn’t hesitate before pummeling the class action lawyers with a libel suit” charging the lawyers with “encourag[ing] the news media to disseminate false, slanderous and libelous comments about Plaintiff” — said encouragement consisting of their press release about the lawsuit, and the press conference they were planning that would have explained it further.

Had the lawyers challenging O’Quinn succeeded in holding their press conference, interesting questions might have been aired. Their suit charges that a group of women numbering at least 2,000 were wrongfully overcharged tens of millions of dollars in claimed expenses, and that the firm of O’Quinn and Laminack breached its fiduciary duty to them; it sought a fee forfeiture totaling $580 million. But O’Quinn’s firm rushed to court to ask for a temporary restraining order to prevent the lawyers from holding a press event, and on June 7, while a judge was considering that motion, they agreed to a gag order and called off the conference they’d scheduled for that day. The whole process — from the first public notice of the suit to the gag order in hand — had taken only three days. “O’Quinn’s quick action may have prevented a firestorm of public attention to the class action suit,” writes the Texas Lawyer’s Jeffreys. It is not recorded whether any of the defendants O’Quinn has sued have ever tried, let alone succeeded in, such a tactic against him.

Here’s an entertaining wrinkle we haven’t reported: the case was sent to an arbitrator, because trial lawyer O’Quinn had required his clients to sign a binding arbitration agreement in the event of disputes! (The irony here is far greater than any Judge Bork personal injury suit.)

The Houston Chronicle reports that the three Houston attorneys on the arbitration panel determined in March that O’Quinn’s deduction was not authorized by his contracts with his clients, and that they are now deciding damages. The former clients, now represented by Joe Jamail, are asking for O’Quinn to completely disgorge all of his fees, a legitimate possibility under the Burrow v. Arce decision, which would be over half a billion dollars. Arbitration decisions are generally not appealable. It’s unclear what has happened to O’Quinn’s countersuit against his clients alleging libel. (Mary Flood, “O’Quinn’s law clients win round against him”, Houston Chronicle, Jun. 9 (h/t W.F.)).

Arbitration is generally quicker than litigation, but O’Quinn seems to have successfully stalled this case for over seven years, not to mention avoid any publicity from it. To date, we are the only media source that has even mentioned the contempt hearing.