CHARLESTON, W.V. - A plaintiff in a high-profile asbestos case apparently forged a signature on an X-ray report so he could repay an improper $750 advance from a Pennsylvania law firm.
In a March 18 report to Kanawha County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht, CSX Transportation attorney Marc Williams traced the forgery to Huntington resident Rodney Chambers but blamed the Pittsburgh firm of Peirce, Raimond and Coulter.
"Once Chambers received his 'settlement advance,' he had a powerful incentive to ensure that he obtained at least some settlement monies from CSX so that he would not have to repay the advance himself," wrote Williams, who works for the Huntington-based law firm of Huddleston Bolen.
Peirce lawyers advised Chambers that to obtain a settlement he needed to find a doctor who would sign a report confirming one already on file, he wrote.
Three times the firm sent Chambers a form for a doctor to sign, Williams wrote, but he couldn't find a doctor.
A week after the firm sent a fourth form, he wrote, Chambers forged a report.
Williams wrote that West Virginia rules of professional conduct prohibit financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation.
Recht presides over thousands of asbestos suits against CSX by appointment of the Supreme Court of Appeals, where he once served as Justice.
Williams filed with his report a motion to dismiss Chambers from a suit the Peirce firm filed in 2002 on behalf of 100 plaintiffs.
Chambers has died. The Peirce firm blamed him for the forgery and dropped him as a client but remained in the case to resist the railroad's investigation.
According to Williams, the firm encouraged his fraud by providing preprinted forms and urging him to obtain a doctor's signature.
The firm could have prevented the fraud by verifying the doctor's identity, he wrote.
Verifying one doctor's identity didn't take much work. Williams wrote that a brother-in-law of a Peirce lawyer signed 4,040 X-ray reports.
The reports usually confirmed reports from radiologist Ray Harron of Bridgeport, who faces civil suits claiming he supplied false reports to lawyers.
"The facts uncovered to date illustrate how the Peirce firm has employed a number of highly questionable practices in the prosecution of dubious asbestos claims on behalf of Chambers and many others," Williams wrote.
CSX lawyers discovered the forgery in 2006. The signature of "Oscar Frye" with a Huntington address and telephone number raised suspicion.
The address doesn't exist, and the number belonged to someone else. Oscar Frye existed, but he didn't practice medicine.
CSX asked Recht to allow discovery on the forgery, and Recht granted it.
CSX deposed Frye, Williams wrote, and Frye testified that he met Chambers at a halfway house on Fifth Avenue.
He wrote that Frye said he didn't sign a report, hadn't heard of the Peirce firm, and had no involvement beyond hearing Chambers express frustration with lawyers.
In light of that testimony, he wrote, Chambers apparently forged the report himself.
Still, he sought to persuade Recht that the forgery revealed wider misconduct.
"Over the past decade, the Peirce firm has acquired clients through union contacts procured via illegal cash payments and then asserted claims on behalf of those clients using tainted and unreliable medical evidence," he wrote.
"Additionally, the Peirce firm prosecuted claims without any professional checks or quality controls and with little or no input from its clients, which only further increased the likelihood of fraudulent outcomes," he wrote.
By filing mass lawsuits and pursuing mediation that restricted discovery, he wrote, the firm concealed baseless claims and leveraged higher settlements.
This tactic delayed prosecution of client claims, he wrote.
"Directly or indirectly, the Chambers claim and the Oscar Frye fraud resulted from these practices," he wrote.
He wrote that the Peirce firm solicited clients through railroad labor unions.
He wrote that the firm's leader, Robert Peirce, contributed $15,000 to election campaigns of United Transportation Union president Charles Little.
He wrote that Little pleaded guilty to racketeering and admitted he demanded secret payments from law firms in exchange for designating them as union counsel.
From union corruption he switched to nepotism. He wrote that Robert Cohen, brother-in-law of former Peirce lawyer Mark Coulter, received $50 for each X-ray report he signed.
Cohen was not certified to read X-rays, Williams wrote, and he lacked training in diagnosis of occupational injury.
He wrote that the Manville Trust, responsible for claims against former asbestos manufacturer Johns Manville, received 4,040 reports from Cohen.
After U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Texas exposed Harron's methods, he wrote, the firm undertook to have other radiologists read client X-rays.
California radiologist Donald Breyer returned a negative report on Chambers, he wrote, and on the same day the firm forwarded the X-ray to another radiologist.
"As the Peirce firm undoubtedly hoped, that doctor returned a positive read," he wrote.
Finally, Williams argued that Chambers took matters into his own hands because no one at the firm would call him.
"The Peirce firm's failure to adequately communicate and consult with clients is not unique to the Chambers matter," he wrote.
"Some Peirce firm clients are even unaware that asbestos lawsuits have been filed on their behalf," he wrote.
"For too long, the judicial system has tolerated conduct in mass asbestos litigation that simply would not be countenanced in other contexts," he wrote.
Williams asked Recht to take whatever action he deems necessary and appropriate.