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Stan Chesley

Disbarred in Kentucky, disgraced in the eyes of many onetime admirers, the veteran mass tort lawyer does not seem to have been disgraced in the eyes of the Cincinnati city council: it just unanimously appointed him to the city’s Human Relations Commission. [WCPO, earlier, background and on Kentucky fen-phen scandal).

Four-part series on rise and fall of front-rank mass tort lawyer Stan Chesley [WCPO]

Part one: How Chesley, born in modest circumstances in Cincinnati, helped pave the way for modern mass tort law by suing dozens upon dozens of defendants — in particular, makers of furnishings and furniture — over the Beverly Hills Supper Club nightclub fire (scroll for more). Advice from Robert Gettys, the only lawyer to hold out and beat Chesley in that case: “Don’t listen to his B.S.”

Part two: “in a 2004 interview, Chesley estimated his firm had recovered nearly $7 billion for clients since he began doing mass tort litigation in the 1970s.”

Part three: he dishes out generously to both Democratic and Republican parties in Ohio, as well as to philanthropies that subsequently undergo embarrassment when the Kentucky Supreme Court finds Chesley “engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation following the initial distribution of client funds and concealed unethical handling of client funds by others.”

Part four: “Chesley’s friends call his professional demise a ‘personal tragedy.’ But his detractors call him a bully who manipulates the media to help his causes. Plenty of local lawyers dislike him. Most, however, declined to be quoted. That’s partly because, although he’s no longer practicing law, Chesley still is married to a federal judge.” Also: why Jacquelyn McMurtry, a fen-phen claimant who attended the civil trial over fee finagling in the Kentucky case, doesn’t share the opinion of settlement guru Kenneth Feinberg that Chesley was somehow the victim of others’ fraud.

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We told you the Kentucky fen-phen scandal — which we’ve been covering since 2005 — was serious. Now it’s resulted in the permanent revocation of the Kentucky license to practice of famed “Master of Disaster” tort specialist Stanley Chesley, whose office is across the river in Cincinnati, Ohio. Two lawyers who directly represented fen-phen clients in Kentucky, “Shirley Cunningham Jr. and William Gallion, are serving prison sentences for bilking clients out of $94 million in settlement money.” While Chesley did not represent Cunningham’s or Gallion’s clients, and denied holding any legal responsibility toward them, he accepted a $20 million fee, far in excess of negotiated sums, for representing the lawyers themselves in the settlement that brought in the cash, a sum that “was unreasonable, especially in light of his professed ignorance and lack of responsibility for any aspect of the litigation except showing up at the mediation and going through the motions of announcing the agreement,” the Kentucky Supreme Court concluded. Chesley participated in the diversion of the pilfered funds into a trust (pleasantly named “Kentucky Fund for Healthy Living“) intended to conceal the skimming, and helped orchestrate the lawyers’ cover-up. Wrote the court: “The vast amount of evidence compiled and presented in this matter demonstrates convincingly that respondent knowingly participated in a scheme to skim millions of dollars in excess attorney’s fees from unknowing clients.” [ABA Journal; court order, PDF; Louisville Courier-Journal; Daniel Fisher, Forbes; David Lat, Above the Law]

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Among the departing lawyers are those representing the state of Ohio in a public employee retirement fund-led class action; the state may not appreciate the fallout from Chesley’s efforts to fight disbarment in Kentucky over the fen-phen scandal. [Cincinnati Enquirer] Many of the one-time “Master of Disaster’s” bipartisan political ties, however, remain cozy:

Chesley noted that Hamilton County [= Cincinnati] Prosecutor Joe Deters, who has worked for Chesley as a private attorney for four years, continues to work at the firm.

Deters also works as a private attorney for the new firm created by Chesley’s former lawyers. Deters, a leader in Hamilton County’s Republican Party, praises Chesley, who has helped raise millions for Democrats…

Chesley’s cautionary tale

by Walter Olson on November 17, 2011

What went wrong with one of the biggest names in the plaintiff’s bar. [Corporate Counsel]

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June 14 roundup

by Walter Olson on June 14, 2011

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March 21 roundup

by Walter Olson on March 21, 2011

  • “Cleveland Browns lawyer letter is apparently real” [Lowering the Bar, earlier]
  • “Headlines of the Apocalypse: ‘Lady Gaga eyes legal action over breast milk ice cream.’” [@vsalus re: Breitbart via @EdDriscoll]
  • Chesley discipline prospects in Kentucky fen-phen scandal: “King of Torts Dethroned” [Laura Simons, Abnormal Use]
  • Busy construction-defect lawyers vex Fresno builders [Bee, Business Journal]
  • “NHTSA Postpones Back-Up Camera Requirement Rule” [The Truth About Cars, earlier]
  • Lawyers in Italy call strike to protest law requiring mediation of commercial disputes [WSJ Law Blog]
  • NYT’s Mark Bittman has a magical touch with food (alas) [Patrick at Popehat]
  • Beasley Allen lawyers sluiced $850K to Alabama GOP judicial contender [Birmingham News via PoL]

February 25 roundup

by Walter Olson on February 25, 2011

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August 19 roundup

by Walter Olson on August 19, 2010

  • Judge bans $1.35 billion sugar beet crop for lack of environmental impact statement [NY Times]
  • Brennan Center, Justice at Stake attracting attention with new report on money in state court judicial races [report in PDF, Kang/ConcurOp]
  • Obama signs “libel tourism” bill into law [Levy, CL&P]
  • “Zach Scruggs claims new evidence clears him” [Patsy Brumfield, NE Mississippi Daily Journal via YallPolitics]
  • Second Circuit panel blasts 1980s abuse-accusation panic in ruling on Friedman case [opinion via NYT and Bernstein/Volokh]
  • Famed Cincinnati lawyer Stanley Chesley may face disciplinary action before Kentucky bar over role in fen-phen scandal [Courier-Journal via Dan Fisher and PoL]
  • Sexual harassment verdict against California casino “amounts to 2/3 of the company’s net worth” [Fox, Jottings]
  • Every White House needs to hire some partisan brawlers. But with “ethics czar” duties? [Matt Welch, Reason]

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You may recall the earlier trial of the Kentucky fen-phen attorneys who had stolen tens of millions of dollars from their clients ended in a mistrial for two and an acquittal for their third compatriot. This time around, a federal court jury, after ten hours of deliberation, found William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr. guilty of eight counts of fraud and one count of conspiracy. A streamlined prosecution case no doubt helped make a difference; defense attorneys sought to blame the matter on Stan Chesley, who negotiated the underlying settlement and received millions more than he was contracted to receive, and it remains mysterious why he was not charged. [Courier-Journal]

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Louisville Courier-Journal:

After 52 hours of deliberation over eight days, a federal jury yesterday declared it was hopelessly deadlocked in deciding whether attorneys William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr. defrauded clients of $65 million in Kentucky’s 2001 fen-phen settlement.

After the judge declared a mistrial, the jury foreman, Donald Rainone of Erlanger, said jurors were stuck at 10-2 to acquit the defendants, and had been at that vote for much of their deliberations.

“We felt the prosecution just didn’t have a strong enough case,” Rainone said in a phone interview in which he strongly criticized the prosecution for being unprepared and focusing its case on only Gallion, Cunningham and a third lawyer, Melbourne Mills Jr.

“There’s a lot of people that had their hand in this,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that should have been on trial that weren’t.”

Rainone declined to say who else should have been on trial, saying he didn’t want to “get sued.”

Of course, that the prosecution failed to indict participants in the fen-phen scam who also stole from tens of thousands to tens of millions doesn’t explain why one votes to acquit the criminal defendant attorneys who stole millions–except for the fact that the defendants were able to blame the empty chair for their actions. If the defendants’ allegations about Stan Chesley’s role are half true, the question remains why Ohio disciplinary authorities have not so much as opened an investigation, much less failed to disbar him. But we will perhaps learn more as the civil trial progresses. Meanwhile, as Peter Bronson writes, “giving immunity to someone so powerful, wealthy and politically wired was everything that destroys public trust in the justice system.”

Judge William O. Bertelsman, who has taken senior status, has recused himself from the retrial; the new judge, Danny Reeves, will likely be requested to lower the eight-digit bond for Gallion and Cunningham, who remain in jail. Melbourne Mills, who was acquitted, says he has already spent the $20 million he was paid for his role in the case–a case his lawyer told a jury that he was too drunk to work on and didn’t understand the underlying law. Nice work if you can get it.

Off-the-record reports I am receiving about the trial blame prosecutors’ performance (such as failing to object to defendant expert opinion that contradicted the facts) and Judge Bertelsman’s instructions to the jury; it also seems to me that the defendants were given far too much leeway to argue the law before the jurors when the judge should have given a straightforward instruction that the underlying case was or was not a class action covering all future Kentucky claimants rather than allow argument over that simple legal question. (Answer: it wasn’t. The settlement with AHP explicitly says it’s a lump-sum settlement for existing plaintiffs requiring the attorneys to comply with Rule 1.8, and there is no indemnification provision contrary to defense testimony arguing otherwise.)

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Melbourne Mills’s defense that he was too drunk to know what was going on when he and two other attorneys stole tens of millions of dollars appears to have created reasonable doubt in the mind of a Kentucky jury.  Mills may have been helped by the revelation that his two co-counsel tried to hide $50 million from him, too, permitting his attorney to more plausibly blame the scheme on others.   Or the jury may have believed the argument of Mills’s attorney that the three attorneys were too stupid to understand the settlement agreement and didn’t intend to steal any money (though they transferred a lot of money from their personal account to their clients when they learned the bar was investigating, and lied to the bar about how much money their clients received).  (Jim Hannah, “One cleared in diet drug case”, Cincinnati Enquirer, Jul. 2; Beth Musgrave, “Fen-phen lawyer Mills is found not guilty”, Lexington Herald-Leader, Jul. 2; Beth Musgrave, “Jury hears closing arguments in fen-phen trial”, Lexington Herald-Leader, Jun. 24; AP/Kentucky Post, Jun. 23).  The jury, today in its seventh day of deliberations, claims a deadlock on the other two attorneys, no doubt confused by why Judge Jay Bamberger and co-counsel and Democratic bigwig Stanley Chesley have not also been indicted. Defendants Cunningham and Gallion have sought to blame the tens of millions they stole on the fact that Bamberger (who was indirectly paid millions) judicially approved the settlement and Chesley (who was directly paid tens of millions) was allegedly the architect of the settlement that ensured lawyers would get far more than their contracts with their clients provided. Since there is no dispute that those two were indeed intimately involved in the scheme, the jury isn’t the only one confused why the Kentucky fen-phen three are being treated differently than the judge, the judge’s former law partner, and Stan Chesley, who all profited mightily.

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From the Cincinnati Enquirer columnist, a refreshingly acerbic account of the erstwhile Master of Disaster’s time on the stand in the Kentucky fen-phen trial, during which he compared himself to Tiger Woods in explaining why he should not be asked to stoop to taking an hourly fee:

Jurors have been anesthetized by six weeks of watching witnesses avoid the truth the way cats avoid a bath. …

…when [defense attorney O. Hale] Almand tried to make Chesley admit – yes or no – that he knew his own lawyer told prosecutors he would take the Fifth unless he got immunity, Chesley’s serial evasions made the courtroom squirm.

I counted at least nine tries. After the seventh, the judge twice ordered Chesley to answer yes or no.

He would not. He wheedled, ducked, swerved and danced. He blustered about attorney-client privilege, corrected the grammar of the question, and griped about how he has been mistreated by the press. …

If you’re hoping to hit a slip-and-fall lotto jackpot by suing Amalgamated Banana Peel Inc., Chesley is just the guy to take on herds of high-paid lawyers. But if you’re looking for a straight answer under oath, look somewhere else.

(“Tiger Woods of Torts”, Cincinnati Enquirer, Jun. 19).

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Perfectly jaw-dropping testimony at the ongoing Covington, Ky. trial:

Attorney William Gallion testified yesterday that he and his co-defendants would have been “legally justified” in taking as much as $170 million from Kentucky’s $200 million fen-phen settlement — because, he said, their clients’ cases were worth only $30 million.

“We were like an insurance company where the hurricane didn’t strike, so we got to keep the premium,” the suspended Lexington lawyer testified in his diet-drug fraud trial in U.S. District Court.

The lawyers, it seemed, had structured the settlement so as to reserve the gigantic helping of gravy in question for the supposed disposition of certain contingencies which then conveniently failed to materialize. Judge William Bertelsman immediately told the jury that Gallion’s interpretation of the law was wrong. (Andrew Wolfson, “Judge, lawyer clash at fen-phen trial”, Louisville Courier Journal, Jun. 14).

And on Monday, famed Cincinnati attorney Stan Chesley — who has been given immunity — testified, assailing the conduct of the three defendants and conveying his complete shock that they would structure the settlement so unfavorably to clients. (Jason Riley, “Chesley rakes diet-drug trio”, Courier-Journal, Jun. 17; Jim Hannah, “Chesley: Fen-phen role slim”, Cincinnati Enquirer, Jun. 17). For a different viewpoint, see Peter Bronson, “Where’s Chesley?”, Cincinnati Enquirer, Jun. 12. More: Herald-Leader.

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William Gallion takes the stand in the Kentucky fen-phen settlement criminal trial:

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The press is starting to catch on to the scandal of Judge Bamberger not being charged in the Kentucky fen-phen settlement scandal, and we have criminal trial updates after the jump.

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The name does have a clean, daisy-fresh smell to it, like a good laundry. In this case the laundering being done was of settlement money in the Kentucky fen-phen scandal. (WSJ law blog, Louisville Courier-Journal, Lexington Herald-Leader, Krauss @ PoL).

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May 12 roundup

by Walter Olson on May 12, 2008

  • Canada free speech: Islamic group files complaint against Halifax newspaper over cartoon of burka-wearing terror fan; two more libel suits aimed at online conservative voices; growing furor over complaint against Steyn/Macleans [National Post]
  • More than 5,000 students committed crimes last year in Philadelphia schools, but none were expelled — consent decrees tying system’s hands are one reason [Inquirer]
  • U.K.: Man threatened with legal action for flying pirate flag as part of daughter’s birthday party [Guardian]
  • Bankruptcy judge doesn’t plan to accept at face value Countrywide’s claim that it generated false escrow documents by mistake in foreclosure [WSJ, WSJ law blog]
  • Amid bipartisan calls to step down, Ohio AG Marc Dann [Apr. 19, May 6] hires an opposition researcher [Adler @ Volokh] on top of Washington lobbyist [Legal NewsLine], after being rebuked by judge for political suit [Dispatch]. And where’s that ethics form on the Chesley flight? [Dayton Daily News]
  • Missouri med-mal claims fall sharply after legislated damages curb [Springfield News-Leader]
  • More on Dartmouth prof Priya Venkatesan, the one who wants to sue her students — as suspected, she’s a devotee of deconstructionist Science Studies [Allen/MtC; earlier]
  • Covert plan to sabotage Chinese economy? [Wilson Center event]
  • What, never? Well, hardly ever: Docs continue to assail notion that various complications such as patient delirium, clostridium difficile infection, iatrogenic pneumothorax, etc. — not to mention falls — are “never events” [KevinMD various posts; earlier]
  • Mich. high court agrees anti-gay-marriage amendment bars municipal health benefits for domestic partners, just what key proponents had claimed it wouldn’t do [Rauch @ IGF, Carpenter @ Volokh, earlier]
  • Private service rates the safety of charter air providers — but can it afford the cost of being sued after giving a bad rating? [Three years ago on Overlawyered]

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