NEWARK, New Jersey - Like Mel Brooks cowboys crashing into someone else's movie, Illinois lawyers tumble into a New Jersey courthouse kicking and screaming.
Brad Lakin and Paul Weiss, each leading a rugged class action crew, have resumed in federal court at Newark a fee fight they apparently resolved in Illinois a year ago.
Texan Tod Lewis tumbled in too, as new man on Lakin's crew and villain from Weiss's point of view.
The flare-up occurred in connection with efforts, purportedly filed on behalf of Pontoon Beach resident Jessica Hall, to block final approval of a class action settlement in the New Jersey case regarding early termination fees imposed by Sprint and related companies, and to disqualify Weiss, his firm, and co-counsel Richard Burke from continuing to serve as class counsel.
The Lakin firm has represented Hall in a related class action in Madison County, although there is apparently now a dispute about who currently represents her.
As previously reported ("Lawyer: 'Reverse auction' in competing class actions is plaintiff shopping," Feb. 5), an objection to the New Jersey settlement and motion to disqualify relied in part on the disciplinary charges currently pending against Weiss in Illinois.
In a Feb. 6 declaration filed in the New Jersey case, Weiss blamed Lewis for sexual harassment charges the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission brought against Weiss in December.
Weiss flatly denied the harassment charges.
He faulted Lewis for sending letters about the charges to New Jersey judges without disclosing his connection to Lakin and Chicago lawyers Philip Bock and Robert Hatch.
"Lewis's malicious motives in sending these letters, impugning me and joining Bock and the Lakin Firm in attempting to derail my firm's business and standing (not to mention credibility) before this Court, and the entire New Jersey District Court, is wrong," Weiss wrote.
"I am sorry that this dirty laundry is brought before this Court," he wrote.
"I have done nothing wrong in this or any case, and I have acted with the utmost professionalism during the entirety of the case," he wrote.
Last fall Weiss and his group reached a settlement agreement with Sprint Nextel.
U.S. District Judge Jose Linares granted preliminary approval in December.
Plaintiff Hall is a pawn, says lawyer
Lakin set out to block final approval on behalf of Hall and a class she has represented since 2005 in a Madison County suit against Sprint.
On Jan. 29 Hall moved as an objector to disqualify Weiss's firm, Freed and Weiss.
On Hall's behalf, New Jersey lawyer Anthony Coviello moved for expedited discovery from Weiss and Sprint.
Coviello claimed Lakin could have reached a better settlement in Madison County than Weiss reached in New Jersey.
In the discovery motion Coviello accused Weiss of running a "reverse auction."
In a reverse auction, competing lawyers file the same suit against the same defendant in different courts and the defendant settles with the weaker lawyers at a lower price.
Coviello wrote, "Counsel in the instant case is clearly the weaker counsel and more likely to get 'shopped' by Sprint."
He claimed Weiss rushed to settle because he knew Illinois regulators would file misconduct charges.
On Feb. 2, former Lakin lawyer Jeff Millar filed a motion on Hall's behalf, seeking to withdraw her motion to disqualify.
In January Hall had signed a letter discharging the Lakin firm and retaining Millar.
For reasons that are unclear, Millar's motion never appeared in the online case file.
Millar's retention letter from Hall evaporated too, for on Feb. 3 she signed an affidavit swearing she changed her mind.
Coviello moved to strike Millar's motion on Feb. 6.
Coviello attached Hall's affidavit and wrote, "Millar's motion is predicated on the incorrect premise that Millar represents Hall."
He wrote, "Millar's motion also contains false, scandalous, and unfounded statements regarding his former colleagues."
Hall swore in her affidavit that in December she received communication from Bock that a firm in her case, Freed and Weiss, filed a similar suit in New Jersey.
She stated she learned that Rich Burke, formerly a Lakin lawyer on her case, was part of the New Jersey case.
She said she received a letter from Millar asking her to select him.
"Based on what Jeff Millar told me, I selected Jeff Millar because I thought that no one else at the Lakin Law Firm was going to be working on my case," she wrote.
She said that after she selected him, he said he would work with Weiss and Burke.
"Phil Bock is and always has been my attorney in my case," she swore.
"This caused some confusion on my part," she stated.
She cast one more player in the picture, her personal attorney Don Flack.
She swore in her affidavit that she saw him on Jan. 29 about an injury claim for her son.
She said Flack once worked with her mother and he had discussed the Sprint case with both of them.
She said he informed her that Lakin and Bock consulted him about the New Jersey case and he was aware she had selected Mr. Millar.
She stated that the next day Bock and Matt Armstrong, who had originally referred her to Bock, called her.
"Feeling more confused, I called Mr. Flack and advised him that I wanted Mr. Bock and Mr. Lakin to handle my case against Sprint and that I would feel more comfortable if he were involved in my case," she swore.
"Mr. Flack told me that he would not advise me who should represent me because he might have an interest in the case at some point in time."
She swore he assured her he would continue to represent her in her son's case.
"After considering my decision carefully, I have decided to revoke my letter selecting Jeff Millar and remain with the Bock firm, the Lakin firm and Mr. Flack himself," she stated.
"I do not want Jeff Millar, Freed and Weiss or Rich Burke acting as my attorneys," she said.
A vendetta, lawyer says
In opposing disqualification, Cecchi argued that Lewis, Bock and Hatch perpetrated a fraud on the court and used the court to carry out a vendetta.
He wrote that, "in carrying out its vendetta, it appears that Bock and Hatch filed its motion to disqualify on behalf of a client Bock and Hatch did not represent at the time they filed their motion and, by their own admission, did not consult with about the motion."
He stated that according to Hall's affidavit, Bock first communicated with her about the New Jersey case more than a year after it was filed.
He wrote that they communicated again a day after Coviello objected on her behalf.
"Put simply, the declaration Bock and Hatch have engineered to exculpate themselves, actually seals their fate; they did not represent Ms. Hall at the time of the filing nor was she consulted about it," he wrote.
Bock knew on Jan. 30 that Hall had chosen Millar, he wrote, so communication without Millar's consent violated rules of professional conduct.
He wrote that she selected Bock through another lawyer's intervention "under circumstances that can only be described as highly suspect."
He wrote, "The picture that emerges from Ms. Hall's declaration is deeply disconcerting."
Judge denies Hall's discovery request
In New Jersey on the same date, Linares asked for briefs on disqualification and denied Hall's discovery motion.
He ruled that her requests wouldn't help him assess the adequacy of the settlement.
"Hall has all of the relevant information at her disposal to fully litigate her motion to disqualify," he wrote.
Her reverse auction theory didn't entitle her to discovery from Sprint.
"This court takes no position at this time as to whether or not Hall's reverse auction argument, as applied to the current case, holds merit," he wrote.
"The court does find, however, that the mere allegation of a reverse auction with no accompanying evidence of collusion does not entitle Hall to the discovery that she seeks," he wrote.
He wrote that in the discovery motion, "several paragraphs are spent on other actions filed in Illinois, none of which have anything to do with the present case."
He wrote, "Those cases are of no value to this court in assessing the current settlement, and the court advises Hall in the future to focus upon the adequacy of the settlement in this specific case."
Weiss: Misconduct charges came from lawyer
On the same date that Coviello moved to strike Millar's motion purporting to withdraw Hall's motion for disqualification, Weiss defended himself in a declaration that New Jersey lawyer James Cecchi attached to a motion opposing disqualification.
According to Weiss, the misconduct complaints against him came from Lewis.
Weiss wrote that Lewis worked at Freed and Weiss and left after a fee dispute that involved Weiss's wife and others.
Weiss stated that Lewis "has taken it upon himself to complain to the Illinois lawyer disciplinary body about me, my wife, a practicing attorney at Freed & Weiss and my partner Eric Freed."
"All of his disciplinary complaints were summarily rejected except his allegation that I had harassed three women, over five years earlier, which remains currently pending," Weiss wrote.
He wrote that the main complainant in the harassment charges, Rachel Barker, provided a sworn statement in 2003 that none of the facts charged in the complaint occurred. A copy of that statement was attached to Weiss's declaration.
He wrote that another complainant, Tanja Samardzija, sought to advance her own interests by trying to cajole Barker into stating that he acted improperly.
He identified complainant Krystal White as Barker's half sister and wrote that he was accused of touching her buttocks once in 2003.
"Not only did I not touch her improperly, but the first time I ever heard this accusation was in 2008," he wrote.
Weiss attached a copy of his firm's Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Policy to his declaration, and stated that Lewis had never reported any complaints of harassment (concerning himself or otherwise), as was required by that policy.
He wrote, "My relationship with the Lakin Law Firm, Bock and Hatch and Tod Lewis can only be described as hostile, to put it mildly."
He stated that both Bock and Lewis are defendants in a pending case in Cook County.
"My firm and Mr. Bock are adversaries in a number of fee disputes pending before different courts."
Bock, Lewis and Lakin used plaintiff Hall as a pawn, he wrote.
Weiss's denial of the sexual harassment charges was echoed in a Feb. 9 letter to the Record from his lawyer, Stephanie Stewart-Page of Chicago, who termed the accusations "false and defamatory."
Stewart-Page disputed the assertion, contained in Coviello's pleading, suggesting that Weiss faced imminent disciplinary action.
"I can assure you that Mr. Weiss's ability to practice in the very near future is not in doubt, and that he does not face imminent suspension or disbarment," she wrote.
Stewart-Page added that Weiss had recently filed an answer to the ARDC complaint denying all material allegations and noting that the "key witness" involved signed a certified statement admitting that no improper conduct occurred.
"We intend to vigorously defend the allegations, and the parties have only just begun the discovery process which, like in any other civil proceeding, will involve both written and oral discovery," she wrote.
Referring to the multi-stage process for disciplinary matters that culminates in review by the Illinois Supreme Court, Stewart-Page disputed, as "absolutely false," Coviello's suggestion that a resolution of the matter was imminent.
Stewart-Page also stated that "Weiss is presumed to have done nothing wrong unless the ARDC proves otherwise by clear and convincing evidence."
She also disputed Coviello's assertion that Weiss's disbarment was "probable."
Linares plans a March 12 hearing on final approval of the settlement.
Lakin and Weiss cooperated in class actions for seven years, but two years ago the partnership ended.
Lakin fired class action lawyer Richard Burke, who began associating with Weiss.
The lawyers sued each other in Madison County, Cook County and federal court.
About a year ago they settled all disputes, but the truce proved temporary.