“U.S. personal injury lawyers allegedly concealed evidence and induced clients to commit perjury to drive up asbestos-related settlements and garner bigger fees, according to lawsuits unsealed on Tuesday in the bankruptcy of a gasket maker.” [Reuters, earlier] My 1998 piece on asbestos witness-coaching is here.
Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler was once seen as South Florida’s fastest-growing law firm. Now all three of its name partners are disbarred and serving time in federal prison [Sun-Sentinel, earlier here, here, and here]
Adding to our list of lists, a few more: John Steele’s top ten legal ethics stories of 2014, National Law Journal via TaxProf’s list of ten legal education stories, and James Beck’s ten best pharmaceutical-law cases from a defense perspective, to go with the earlier list of ten worst. Daniel Schwartz has three predictions about labor and employment law (intensifying battles over NLRB; alarm at wave of regulation coming out of the administration; Supreme Court continues to meander and zigzag)
The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility moves against a dubious practice. “The demand letters are effective at scaring consumers because they are sent on prosecutor letterhead and contain threats of criminal prosecution — threats that no other debt collector could make.” However, they mobilize the prosecutor’s apparent public authority on behalf of legal threats which typically the prosecutor has not reviewed individually exercising professional judgment, and they can deceive debtors about the legal status of their claimed obligation. [Deepak Gupta, Consumer Law & Policy; earlier]
Terry Collingsworth, a well-known attorney specializing in Alien Tort cases against defendants like Chiquita, Coca-Cola, Dole, and Chevron over alleged overseas misconduct, is enmeshed in a bitter fight with the Alabama-based, privately held Drummond Coal empire in which heated allegations are flying in both directions [Daniel Fisher, Forbes]
The large law firm, which is also Washington, D.C.’s biggest lobbying firm, will pay $15 million, express regret and withdraw from representing Ecuadorian environmental complainants to settle the oil company’s charges that it had participated in a litigation scheme that Chevron has called fraudulent and extortionate. “It also agreed to assist Chevron with discovery against the Ecuadoran plaintiffs and their New York-based lawyer, Steven Donziger,” as well as hand over its five percent share of any moneys the plaintiffs happen to win when the whole thing is over. [Washington Post; Paul Barrett, Bloomberg Business Week; our coverage of the case over years]
Only three days after Judge Kaplan’s spectacular ruling in the Chevron/Ecuador case, notes Paul Barrett at Business Week, “a state appellate court in California upheld a trial judge’s finding that what had been billed as a watershed liability verdict against Dole Food over pesticide use in Nicaragua was actually the product of a corrupt conspiracy by plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
The case at issue in the March 7 ruling, known as Tellez, went to trial in 2008 and produced a multimillion-dollar verdict for workers. That verdict was thrown out when Dole’s attorneys proved that many of the plaintiffs never worked for the company and weren’t, in fact, sterile. Witnesses and investigators were intimidated in Nicaragua, and plaintiffs were coached to concoct false stories.
Barrett has related pieces here and here. He notes the string of high-profile plaintiff’s lawyers tripped up by unethical conduct — Dickie Scruggs, Bill Lerach, Mel Weiss, Stan Chesley — and observes that the jackpots obtained by the mass tort bar in the 1990s incentivized, when they were not themselves the result of, ethical problems that have taken years to play themselves out. I’ve been on these themes since (and before) my book The Rule of Lawyers, and began tracking the banana pesticide litigation five years ago.
“A lesbian couple who married last week want a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit against the state and the LDS Church that listed their names without their knowledge or permission. … ‘Mr. Smay never had authorization, consent or permission from me or my wife to file a lawsuit on our behalf,’ Fowler wrote in a court declaration.” The couple had married following an unrelated ruling by a federal judge on a challenge to Utah marriage law, and had been the subject of Dec. 25 coverage in the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper, which one of the pair believes might have called them to the lawyer’s attention. [church-affiliated Deseret News, KSL, Religion Clause] For another instance in which someone complained of being named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit without their consent, see this 2007 item.
Update: court tosses suit; lawyer insists he doesn’t need couple’s permission to file suit, but other lawyers tell the Salt Lake Tribune he’s wrong.
The partner from the prominent plaintiff’s and class-action firm testified that he signed on to the much-ballyhooed environmental suit against Chevron, then backed out almost immediately after seeing the ethical issues [Reuters]
P.S. Testimony from Philadelphia attorney Joseph Kohn of Kohn, Swift, & Graf also appears unhelpful, to say the least, to Steven Donziger’s case [Paul Barrett, Bloomberg Business Week]
More coverage for the Frank Buckley-edited new book on overlegalization, The American Disease [Richard Reinsch/Library of Law and Liberty, Alejandro Chafuen/Forbes] Here’s Buckley in the National Post:
If litigation rates are four times smaller in Canada than the United States, this should not occasion surprise: Subsidize something and you get more of it; penalize it and you get less of it.
Differences in legal ethics matter, too. In America, more than elsewhere, lawyers are encouraged to advance their client’s interests without regard to the interests of justice in the particular case or broader social concerns. American lawyers’ professional culture is unique in permitting and implicitly encouraging them to assert novel theories of recovery, coach witnesses, and wear down their opponents through burdensome pretrial discovery.
Does the system protect its own? “A former Alameda County Superior Court judge charged with swindling a 97-year-old neighbor out of her life savings pleaded no contest Thursday to elder abuse and perjury and will not face jail time.” [San Francisco Chronicle, earlier]
Cathy Young arraigns the press for “an ideology-based, media-driven false narrative that has distorted a tragedy into a racist outrage.” Bob Somerby at Daily Howler has been documenting chapter and verse for some time, including this reminder of how the New York Times early on, taking dictation from Martin family lawyers, popularized a super-inflammatory “two-shot, cold blood” narrative that influenced public perceptions. Much of this is already familiar to readers of Overlawyered coverage including posts discussing media handling of the case here, here, here, here, and here.
My own theory — admittedly shaped by my professional interests — is that if you dig beneath the failure of a credulous press here you find a failure in legal ethics. While the press did publish one untruth after another about what happened that night and about the principals, a large share of those untruths can ultimately be traced to the offices of Benjamin Crump & Co., with some later help from Angela Corey’s office.
What about ideological outlets like ThinkProgress, which disgracefully promoted one error after another in egging on the press frenzy? To quote what I wrote at the time Zimmerman was charged:
The thing is, “Stand Your Ground” hadn’t really been a pet issue one way or the other for many of those who now harp on it. I think the better answer is: because many people yearn for ways to blame their ideological opponents when something awful happens. It’s much more satisfying to do that than to wind up wasting one’s blame on some individual or local police department for actions or decisions that might not even turn out to be motivated by ideology.
Consider, for example, the efforts to set up the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council as somehow the ultimate villain in the Martin shooting. Left-wing groups, assisted by labor union and trial lawyer interests, had been pursuing a campaign against ALEC for months before the Martin case, in hopes of making the group radioactive among generally liberal donors like the Gates Family Foundation and the Coca-Cola Co. Nothing had worked — until the synthetic Stand Your Ground furor finally afforded an opening.
Commentary has un-paywalled my July article on the feds’ “blueprint” for how colleges and universities must deal with charges of sexual misconduct. I explain why despite a retreat to a seemingly less extreme interpretation of the law, the dangers remain that the Department of Education and Department of Justice will arm-twist academic institutions into stacked disciplinary methods and new curbs on speech. Read it here (and also consider subscribing to Commentary, gates aside). Earlier here, here, etc.
Two points worth noting: first, while the Obama administration has pushed the new plan hard, the wider trend of gradually stepped-up federal supervision over university life has been going on for decades under Republican and Democratic administrations alike. There is not much resistance: university officials and organized professors themselves are relatively half-hearted about sticking up for their own institutional autonomy. Indeed, the federal prescriptions represent in some ways a consolidation of power by already-powerful elements within the academy, as opposed to a perceived hostile takeover from the outside. In the same July issue of Commentary, Philip Hamburger has an excellent article outlining how university researchers have for decades now tamely submitted to federally prescribed controls — overseen by so-called IRBs, or institutional review boards — over such relatively innocuous forms of “human-subjects research” as interviewing politicians and observing passersby in public places. In 2007, David Hyman wrote for Cato’s Regulation magazine on “The Pathologies of Institutional Review Boards.”
P.S. Much more on IRBs from George Mason’s Zachary Schrag (book, another interview, more, blog).