Fight over Sprint settlement escalated by personal feud

Steve Korris Feb. 27, 2009, 7:21am

Brad Lakin

Tom Lakin

Richard Burke

Jeff Millar

NEWARK, New Jersey - Attorney Tod Lewis claims he reported Paul Weiss to Illinois attorney regulators for duty's sake, and Weiss claims Lewis reported him for the sake of money.

In new briefs at federal court in Newark, Lewis and Weiss escalate a personal feud and inflame a dispute between teams of lawyers.

Each side deplores venom in the other and bites back with more of it.

Now Weiss drags the notorious crimes of former Wood River lawyer Tom Lakin into the record before U.S. District Judge Jose Linares.

Each side wants Linares to cast the other out of settlement proceedings in a class action against telephone company Sprint Nextel.

Lewis, who used to work for Weiss at Freed and Weiss of Chicago, works for Phillip Bock and Robert Hatch of Chicago.

Bock and Hatch associate with Lakin's son, Brad Lakin.

Weiss associates with former Lakin lawyers Richard Burke and Jeff Millar.

In December, Weiss and Burke reached agreement with Sprint Nextel in New Jersey to settle a claim that the company charged improper fees for early termination.

The agreement stunned Lakin, who expected to settle a similar suit he filed against Sprint in Madison County on behalf of Pontoon Beach resident Jessica Hall.

Lakin asked Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth to stop a preliminary approval hearing in New Jersey, but Ruth discussed it with Linares and decided not to interfere.

In January Lakin objected to the New Jersey settlement on Hall's behalf and asked Linares to disqualify Burke and Weiss.

Lakin's New Jersey lawyer, Anthony Coviello, claimed Weiss and Burke ran a "reverse auction" by settling for less than Lakin would have obtained in Madison County.

Coviello alleged conflict of interest, pointing out that Weiss and Burke acted as class counsel to Hall and never withdrew their representation.

He challenged Weiss's adequacy as class counsel, arguing that Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission charges might result in his disbarment.

The commission has charged Weiss with harassment of female employees.

Weiss has unequivocally denied the sexual harassment allegations and has vowed to vigorously defend the disciplinary charges.

Weiss's New Jersey lawyer, James Cecchi, protested that Lewis notified Linares of a complaint against Weiss without disclosing his connection to Lakin, Bock and Hatch.

Lewis also failed to disclose a pending civil suit between him and Weiss, Cecchi wrote.

Cecchi moved to strike the motion to disqualify Weiss and Burke.

Coviello replied on Feb. 13 that Weiss and Burke didn't address the conflict of interest.

"Most of Respondents' accusations are not factual, but instead are pure venom," he wrote, and he promised that Hall and her counsel wouldn't join the mud slinging.

He wrote that Lewis didn't work for Bock and Hatch when he sent Linares a letter about his misconduct complaint against Weiss.

He wrote that Lewis acted solely in his capacity as a member of the Illinois Bar.

"Lewis was not acting under the authorization of or in the business interest of any law firm, or even of any client, but was acting in furtherance of his ethical duties," he wrote.

Coviello asserted that Lewis disclosed the litigation history between him and Weiss.

He wrote that Hall hired Bock in 2003 and her only written contract for representation was with Bock.

He wrote that the LakinChapman fired Millar last December and Millar misled Hall to believe no other attorney there would work on her case.

"Hall was thereby deceived into signing a letter purporting to hire Millar and purporting to terminate further representation by LakinChapman," he wrote.

"Millar attempted to withdraw Hall's objection and to 'bless' the proposed settlement, without any authorization from Hall," he wrote.

Bock and Hall were obligated "to take appropriate measures to prevent the hijacking of the claims of the certified Hall class and the reverse auction here," he wrote.

Coviello charged that Weiss and Burke breached their duty to Hall.

"Put another way, they stole her case and the case of the class she has been appointed to protect, and now they're trying to silence her," he wrote.

Weiss and Burke bounced back by claiming the Lakin team didn't consult with Hall.

"Although Bock and Hatch purport to represent Ms. Hall, they did not discuss this offer of settlement with their client, and they did not get her consent to reject the settlement and file an objection in her name," Cecchi wrote on Feb. 20.

He accused Bock, Hatch and Lewis of pulling a fraud on the court.

"It is a violation of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct to take a position on settlement without consulting with the client," he wrote.

New Jersey class representatives "all had the settlement explained to them and even signed the settlement agreement before it was submitted to the court for preliminary approval," he wrote.

Cecchi sought to undermine the conflict of interest claim, writing that the Lakin firm instructed Weiss and Burke not to communicate with Hall.

Lakin, Bock and Hatch didn't tell Weiss and Burke that they secretly negotiated with Sprint, he wrote.

Lakin, Bock and Hatch failed to return phone calls and e-mails about Sprint, he wrote.

He asked, "How can a lawyer represent a client he is not permitted to even talk to and whose counsel refuse to communicate?"

He branded the claim that Lewis acted out of duty as "at best, highly implausible."

He wrote, "This court in New Jersey is obviously not the tribunal or authority empowered to investigate or act upon the matters Mr. Lewis has (falsely) referred to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission."

He wrote it was ludicrous to suggest Lewis didn't act in the interest of any law firm.

"This has been a coordinated effort from the very beginning," he wrote.

"The civil litigation against Bock and Hatch and Mr. Lewis is ongoing, while the Lakin firm settled their litigation by paying Freed and Weiss a substantial sum," he wrote.

"The bar charges referred to in such detail in all of the Lewis/Bock and Hatch pleadings were filed by Mr. Lewis himself, who is now trying to benefit financially from the making of those charges," he wrote.

"Mr. Lewis recently sent a copy of the bar charges, salacious detail and all, to Mr. Weiss's in-laws," he wrote.

Cecchi charged that though Lewis appointed himself as ethics police, he didn't advise the court that Lakin was sued in a civil action and accused of using the firm to spoliate evidence related to his father's crimes.

"After the civil suit was filed, the federal government indicted Mr. Lakin's father, L. Thomas Lakin, who pleaded guilty to cocaine distribution after he was charged with enticing minor boys to cross state lines for sex in exchange for the provision of the cocaine," he wrote.

"He is now serving six years in a federal penitentiary," he wrote.

Linares has set a March 12 hearing on final approval of the settlement.

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