Lakin firm sued for $5 million by former class action chief

Steve Gonzalez Jan. 30, 2007, 9:20am

Richard Burke

Brad Lakin

A former Lakin Law Firm class action attorney claims his attempt to protect the interests of plaintiffs from persistent Lakin family scandals led to his firing and the loss of a half-million dollar annual bonus.

Richard Burke, the former supervising attorney for the class action department at the Wood River-based firm, filed a four-count civil suit in federal court against Bradley Lakin and his firm seeking damages in excess of $5 million dollars.

Burke claims that after a civil sexual assault lawsuit was filed against Thomas Lakin, Bradley Lakin, Kristopher Lakin and the firm in May 2006, he told Bradley Lakin that a plan should be developed to protect the interests of the certified and putative classes in the event that Bradley Lakin or the Lakin firm were indicted by a grand jury. Burke said he also discussed the possibilities of Bradley Lakin and the firm being sanctioned by the Illinois Bar for unethical conduct.

In the suit filed Monday, Burke claims he told Brad Lakin that adverse publicity could taint jury pools in Madison and St. Clair counties.

Represented by Robert Ramsey of Brent Coon and Associates and C. John Pleban of St. Louis, Burke filed his complaint in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis. He accuses Lakin and the firm of breach of contract, fraud and tortuous interference with contract and/or business expectancy.

The civil suit filed against the Lakins, first in Madison County, then later withdrawn and refiled in St. Clair County, contained allegations of sexual abuse of minors, illegal drug use and spoliation of evidence.

Federal prosecutors have investigated the allegations and a special prosecutor was appointed in Madison County last year to conduct a similar state investigation. Last month, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, which conducted its own inquiry, filed a complaint against Thomas Lakin.

"Plaintiff told defendants that in all likelihood the civil suits, the criminal and ethical investigations, and the adverse publicity could damage the interests of the classes the Lakin Firm had been appointed to represent," the complaint states.

Burke claims Lakin told him he intended to invoke the Fifth Amendment before the grand jury and that he "would not be found guilty of anything."

Burke claims he told Lakin that if no plan to protect the clients or the classes was prepared, it could become too late to do so in the future.

"Plaintiff reminded defendant Bradley Lakin that the scandals arose from personal matters relating to the Lakin family and that it was his duty and the duty of the Lakin Law Firm to put the interest of the clients above their own," the complaint states.

Burke claims they discussed various options including establishing a separate law firm created from the staff of the existing Lakin Law Firm, separating the class action department from direct involvement by persons subpoenaed or under criminal or ethical investigation, and even changing the name of the firm to deflect any adverse publicity from prejudicing the classes to potential jurors.

Burke claims Lakin never talked to him again about the plan and in August Lakin told him that he conducted an investigation and was removing Burke from his responsibilities in the class action department.

Lakin was attempting to seize control of all the attorneys fees generated from the class action cases in order to fund the defense of the civil, criminal, and ethical allegations made against him and his family members, Burke claims.

According to Burke, Lakin accused him of setting up a separate law firm to prosecute the class action cases.

Burke claims Lakin refused to disclose any witnesses or other evidence to support his claims, nor did he reveal any evidence that he had done anything other than try to protect the interests of the clients and classes and to get Lakin to do likewise.

Burke claims he was trying to protect the interests of the classes because the Lakin family scandals persisted, other attorneys in the firm had now received disciplinary complaints arising from those scandals, grand jury subpoenas were continuing to be issued, and ethical complaints had been filed against Bradley Lakin.

"Plaintiff told defendants that they had failed to engage in any planning to protect the interests of the classes, that such planning was still necessary, and that the longer this went on the less likely the Lakin Firm could maintain its position as adequate class counsel for the classes under Illinois Rules," the complaint states.

Burke claims that on Sept. 29, 2006, Lakin gave notice that his written employment agreement would be terminated in 90 days and that after Dec. 31, 2006, he would become an at-will employee.

Burke claims that on Dec. 31, 2006, there was at least $500,000 due and owing from the Lakin Law Firm to him for the class action bonus compensation but has yet to be paid.

He claims he was fired Jan. 4 and told that he would only be paid $485,000 and only if he signed a separation agreement.

Burke claims Lakin told him he that if he did not sign the agreement right then and there he would be paid nothing.

"Defendant Bradley Lakin coerced plaintiff into signing a separation agreement as a condition to plaintiff receiving any portion of the compensation to which he was entitled under the Agreement for the services he had already rendered under it," the complaint states.

Burke claims that under the separation agreement, he was required to release substantial rights in exchange for compensation to which he was already owed for fulfilling his obligations under the employment agreement, thereby depriving the separation agreement of consideration.

Burke claims the separation agreement also appears to violate public policy, in that it attempts to contractually prohibit him from providing any information to any "tribunal," ethics committee, court or otherwise, regarding the conduct of Brad Lakin or other members of the firm.

He claims the agreement would require him to return money earned to the Lakin firm if he did talk to anyone.

"The separation agreement was unconscionable, induced by coercion, and without consideration," the complaint states.

Burke claims the separation agreement contained a rescission clause which allowed him to rescind the separation agreement, conditional upon him exercising this right within seven days and repaying the monies paid to him by Lakin under the terms of the separation agreement.

Burke claims he did rescind the agreement by notifying Lakin in writing and returned the money Lakin paid him.

"Plaintiff made demand upon defendant Lakin Law Firm for payment of the Class Action Bonus Compensation in the amount of $500,000, however, the Lakin firm refused and continues to refuse to pay this earned compensation without justification in breach of the Agreement," the complaint states.

According to the complaint, Burke's base salary was $150,000.

Burke claims he was to be compensated by the payment of base monthly compensation, according to the regular payment schedule of employees of the Lakin firm, was entitled to the employment benefits otherwise available to employees of the Lakin firm, and was to receive additional compensation, called the Class Action Bonus Compensation to be paid on or before Dec. 31 of each calendar year.

He claims the amount of the Class Action Bonus Compensation was calculated as a percentage of gross attorney fees generated by the Class Action Department of the Lakin Firm and received by the Lakin firm within the calendar year.

He claims he was to receive a percentage of all the attorneys fees paid to the Lakin Firm from class action litigation. In the instances where his involvement was minimal, the percentage was to be 2 percent and was considered earned by virtue of his general supervisory responsibilities over the department.

When Burke's involvement was substantive, including negotiation of settlement, argument of critical motions, and preparing and arguing preliminary and final approval, the percentage was not to exceed 7 percent.

The case was assigned to District Judge David Herndon, however he recused himself and the case has now been assigned to Michael Reagan.

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