Suing lawyers: More convulsions in Wayne County
By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
June 1, 2003
Where to begin. Last Sunday's column grew legs this week and stalked around the countryside.
It was about a spin-off effect of Mississippi's litigious legal climate, a step-child born of the proliferation of lawsuits statewide, a point beyond people suing pharmaceutical drug companies in product liability cases now they're suing lawyers involved in suing pharmaceutical companies.
Breach of contract.
Clients who say, in essence, "I got a settlement, but you charged too much in legal fees and, besides that, I want to know how much money all the other plaintiffs got."
People who say, "I did a job for lawyers and they stiffed me on the fee."
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera …
Last week, I talked about a lawyer named Kevin Muhammad of Fayette who has filed three almost identical breach of contract suits against law firms in Mississippi alleging that his clients were hired to drum up other clients for lawsuits against drug companies.
In each case, his clients say they they were promised large fees for their services. In each case, they claim the employer-employee relationship was based on an oral agreement.
Langston, Sweet &Freese of Jackson was a named defendant in all three lawsuits.
In one, a Wayne County case, the plaintiffs claim that local attorney J. Keith Shelton facilitated the business relationship on behalf of Langston, Sweet &Freese and two other law firms named in the suit.
The language in Muhammad's lawsuits is like nothing I have ever seen. In one, which has since been dismissed, he compared his client to a "happy black slave singing Dixie' in the defendants' tort fields."
I closed last week's column with the comment that I didn't know whether to admire Muhammad for being that in-your-face or criticize him for showing insufficient respect for the court system.
The tide has turned
This is the kind of racially inflammatory lawyer's comment that Florida's 3rd District Court of Appeals criticized earlier this month as it overturned the state's $145 billion settlement against Philip Morris USA and other tobacco companies.
Equally inflammatory comments got Muhammad sanctioned Thursday during a hearing in Wayne County Chancery Court. Not that he was there to see it. Muhammad did not attend the hearing, nor did any of his clients.
The lawsuit Muhammad filed in the Wayne County case impugned, at length, the character of someone who had nothing to do with the issue at hand. I didn't include any of that in my column, for exactly that reason, and I won't get into it now.
Shelton asked for sanctions and got them.
Chancery Judge Frank McKenzie gave Muhammad 20 days to file an amended complaint with the offensive paragraphs removed. If he doesn't, McKenzie will dismiss the lawsuit.
The original filing has been "sealed" and is no longer a part of the public record. Muhammad and his clients have been ordered to pay Shelton $1,500 to compensate him for costs associated with defending himself in this matter.
More judge's orders
McKenzie ruled Thursday on two other motions filed by Shelton in the same lawsuit.
The plaintiffs apparently tried to have Shelton's assets at a Chatom, Ala., bank frozen. The judge ruled that the documents they used in the attempt were improperly obtained.
Further, the judge said, they were frivolous and "interposed for the purpose of harassment and intimidation and vexation, and unnecessarily expanded these proceedings."
One of the plaintiffs, Larry Williamson, was sanctioned and ordered to pay Shelton $1,500 within 20 days to compensate him for costs associated with defending himself.
Finally, McKenzie ordered the plaintiffs in the case to post a $4,000 bond payable to Shelton. If Shelton wins the lawsuit, the bond will be negotiated to compensate him and his co-defendants for the cost of defending themselves against the lawsuit's allegations.
The plaintiffs have 60 days to post the bond or McKenzie will dismiss the lawsuit.
Mea culpa: Muhammad's lawsuit in Wayne County alleges that J. Keith Shelton was somehow acting for Langston, Sweet &Freese when he allegedly entered into an oral agreement with the plaintiffs to help drum up clients for lawsuits.
In the exact language of the complaint, Shelton was allegedly "the appointed, qualified, and acting agent, servant, representative, affiliate, associate and/or employee of the defendants."
In last week's column, attempting to boil down the legalese, I said the lawsuit claimed Shelton had been "hired" by Langston, Sweet &Freese. In doing so, I unintentionally over-asserted the alleged relationship and I apologize for that.
Why is it a big deal?
In the event a lawsuit like Muhammad's ever prevailed, breach of contract would be the least of the defendants' problems. Lawyers who engaged in such practices to procure clients would probably be disbarred.
I tried to speak with one of the partners, Dennis Sweet, but phone messages left Thursday and Friday were not returned.
What Shelton says: Not a lot. Shelton says the lawsuit makes false allegations, and "I'm going to do my talking in the courtroom." And, it's important to remember that a lawsuit represents only one side in a legal dispute.
What Muhammad says: Unfazed, Muhammad says he was only informed of Thursday's hearing the day before it occurred. That, he said, is insufficient notice and he had a prior engagement in Jackson. Muhammad said he intends to ask Judge McKenzie to set aside his rulings and re-hear Shelton's motions at a new hearing.
Just for the record, if you're a lawyer who has received notice to appear in court and you can't make it, you're supposed to let someone know. This generally takes the form of a motion for continuance asking the judge to reschedule for another date.
In this case, no such motion was filed.