The drama behind the sudden departure last week of the bulk of a local law firm’s attorneys is still playing out in court. And now a judge has empowered the sheriff’s office to take action.
All but two of the attorneys at personal injury firm Geoff McDonald & Associates jumped ship early last week.
Six of the seven who left – Jamie Karek, Dana Charback, Lauren Carroll, Seth Carroll, Elyse Stiner and Matthew Lastrapes – started their own firm, Commonwealth Law Group.
On Jan. 16, they filed for a preliminary injunction in the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond, claiming that McDonald locked them out of GMA offices and blocked their access to calendars and case files upon learning that they were considering leaving.
Their attorney, Jimmy Robinson Jr. of Richmond-based Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, called McDonald’s actions “highly unethical” in the petition and said McDonald has “substantially hindered” CLG’s abilities to represent the clients who chose to follow the attorneys to their new firm.
The same day, Circuit Judge Gregory Rupe ordered that the attorneys be granted immediate access to all of GMA’s offices to retrieve their files for clients who chose to retain them, as well as calendars and emails. The judge barred McDonald from “unilateral communications” with the attorneys’ clients.
On Tuesday, the judge amended his order to authorize the sheriff’s office to “employ all reasonable measures necessary” to enforce his Jan. 16 mandate.
Also on Tuesday, McDonald’s attorney, Leslie Haley of Haley Law in Midlothian, filed a motion for reconsideration of the court’s orders.
In the filing, Haley claimed that opposing counsel “has made material misrepresentations to this court regarding the underlying factual, legal and ethical concerns involved in this matter.”
She said she did not receive notice of any court hearings or a copy of any filings until after the hearings had been held, despite being brought on Jan. 15 to represent McDonald.
On Wednesday, the CLG attorneys requested another hearing, alleging that McDonald still hadn’t complied with the judge’s order. They said McDonald had turned over only one file despite multiple requests to obtain the files of clients who wished to be represented by CLG. They also alleged that their calendars were printed out in a format that made it impossible to see all of the scheduled appointments.
In addition, the attorneys claimed that McDonald had contacted some of the clients who chose CLG to try to persuade them to stay with his firm or to misrepresent that he had retained the case, the petition said.
A hearing was held Wednesday afternoon before Circuit Judge Melvin Hughes Jr. Hughes ordered McDonald to turn over, “by this time tomorrow afternoon,” the files of clients who signed choice letters indicating that they wanted CLG to handle their cases. Robinson noted that at least 40 clients had signed choice letters.
Haley told the judge they intend to comply but have been sorting out which clients actually want to go with CLG. She said some signed a choice letter with CLG and then called GMA to say they were confused and wanted to stay with McDonald.
Hughes told Haley that GMA needs to turn over the files anyway. If a client changes his or her mind later, the file can be returned to GMA, he said.
McDonald told a reporter after the hearing Wednesday that his office is “working very hard to amicably resolve this matter.” Robinson and the CLG attorneys would not comment.
According to information on the Virginia State Bar’s website, clients have a right to choose their attorney. When an attorney leaves a firm, the bar recommends sending a neutral letter from both the attorney and the firm notifying the client of the change and asking them to choose their preferred counsel, be it the firm, the departing attorney or a new attorney altogether.
The case file – both physical and electronic – goes to whomever the client chooses to represent them, the bar said.
Benjamin Andrews, the seventh attorney who left GMA last week, joined Halperin Law Center. Andrews said Tuesday that he is still getting case files for his carryover clients.