A local law firm that used to round up plaintiffs for a nationwide class action firm has allegedly been cheating its master.

In a lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court last week, Chicago-based Freed & Weiss claims the Lakin Law Firm of Wood River settled cases behind their backs, hid fees that were collected, stole clients, abandoned the partnership without notice, denied access to accounting records and slandered them by claiming Freed & Weiss did not pay its bills.

The suit claims that scandals associated with members of the Lakin Law Firm, including the indictment of former Lakin attorney Gary Peel and the investigation of child sexual abuse charges against Thomas Lakin, shocked them, but Freed & Weiss remained committed to the partnership.

Peel was indicted by a federal grand jury last year on charges of obstruction of justice, bankruptcy fraud and possession of child pornography. His trial is set to begin next month.

Thomas Lakin is accused of sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy, the son of a former secretary, and giving him cocaine. The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission filed a complaint against Thomas Lakin on sexual abuse and drug use allegations in December. The complaint also states that Lakin encouraged and allowed the youth he abused to have sex with a minor female and two women while he watched.

After the intense negative publicity, Brad Lakin and Freed & Weiss decided they needed a plan to handle class action cases that had not yet been certified, the suit claims.

Freed & Weiss formed a partnership with the Lakin firm and its founder Thomas Lakin and Brad Lakin in September 1999 and together they have litigated more than 100 class actions in Madison County, according to the suit.

About 50 cases remain uncertified, according to the complaint.

A letter of agreement in 1999, attached as an exhibit to the complaint, confirmed that the partners would split fees awarded in cases under way against insurers State Farm, Shelter and Farmers, as well as "any related cases later filed in Madison County, Illinois, on a 50/50 basis." (See attached file).

The partners acknowledged the possibility that the Lakin firm "at some point in the future be precluded from continuing to pursue uncertified cases if the civil and potential criminal cases and/or potential Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission proceedings were adjudicated against them," the suit states.

Former Freed & Weiss attorneys Phillip A. Bock, Jonathan B. Piper, Tod A. Lewis, as well as Lakin attorney Robert W. Schmieder II and Thomas and Brad Lakin individually are also named defendants.

The suit claims Brad Lakin and the other defendants began "freezing out" Freed & Weiss in the uncertified cases by telling clients in letters they had to choose being represented by the Lakin firm or Freed & Weiss.

"(Brad) Lakin began soliciting the other individual defendants to surreptitiously engage in a series of activities that would --at plaintiffs' expense and with complete disregard for the best interests of the partnership and partnership clients -- undermine and ultimately purport to dissolve the partnership," the suit states.

The suit states that Illinois State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Collinsville), who is an "of counsel" attorney with the Lakin firm was enlisted by Brad Lakin, Bock and Schmieder to convince referring attorneys to steer "certain uncertified clients" away from Freed & Weiss.

The suit claims the individual defendants and Hoffman asked attorneys Timothy Campbell and Christopher Kolker to lure away the uncertified clients, including certain medical providers from Freed & Weiss.

"To achieve this goal...these defendants and their enlisted referring attorneys falsely told certain of the uncertified clients that, among other things, plaintiffs failed to pay their bills," the suit states. "As a result of these statements...several medical provider plaintiffs appear to have ceased working with (Freed & Weiss) in connection with the partnership's uncertified cases."

Freed & Weiss claims the defendants settled "several" uncertified cases without their knowledge or consent.

The suit claims that, for instance, the Lakin firm secretly told Hilton Hotels defense counsel to remit a fee only to Lakin.

"Luckily, Freed & Weiss discovered this and was able to secure payment," the complaint states.

Freed & Weiss is represented by Karen L. Levine, Monte Mann and Joseph S. Nacca of Novack and Macey in Chicago.

Last month the Record reported that the Lakin firm severed ties with Freed & Weiss, the details of which were revealed in a lawsuit attorney Richard Burke filed against the Lakin firm in federal court. Burke, who was fired from the Lakin firm Jan. 4, claims breach of contract.

"The partnership was successful," the complaint states, "as plaintiffs, the Lakin firm and (Brad) Lakin won or settled a number of the partnership cases and recovered substantial awards for the partnership clients. As a corollary to this success, the parties themselves reaped substantial financial rewards in attorneys' fees."

According to the suit, the Lakin firm was in charge of interviewing potential clients in southern Illinois and to appear in court. Freed & Weiss "agreed to use their extensive class action experience to, among other things, initiate and develop cases and draft pleadings, develop litigation strategy...conduct discovery."

Fees were generally collected by Freed & Weiss and then after expenses were split and disbursed to the Lakin firm, the suit claims.

In December, the Record reported that Freed & Weiss does not carry malpractice coverage, even though one of its founders was once suspended by the Illinois Bar for harassing several women.

While such lack of coverage does not violate Illinois law, it raises questions as to the adequacy of representation that class-action members in the firm's cases are receiving.

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