The lawsuits are flying fast and furious between the owner of a local personal injury law firm and a handful of lawyers who left his practice in January.
Geoff McDonald, head of Geoff McDonald & Associates, and six of his former associates were back in court Wednesday. The two sides argued in Richmond Circuit Court whether McDonald should be found in civil contempt on allegations that he ignored repeated court orders to turn over client files to the departed attorneys and to not contact clients who had chosen to follow the six attorneys to their new firm, Commonwealth Law Group.
The CLG attorneys say McDonald should be ordered to pay a penalty of as much as $200,000 as a result. The arguments for contempt and penalties are still being considered.
McDonald, meanwhile, fired back with a lawsuit of his own, alleging that the departing attorneys behaved unethically in their communications with clients and claims they owe him money under the terms of employment agreements he says each entered into while working at his firm.
The bickering began on Jan. 16 when the CLG attorneys — Jamie Karek, Dana Charback, Lauren Carroll, Seth Carroll, Elyse Stiner and Matthew Lastrapes –filed for a preliminary injunction, 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.
In court Wednesday, the CLG attorneys’ lawyer Jimmy Robinson Jr. of Richmond-based Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, said they have lost clients – and, as a result, more than $100,000 in potential legal fees — because of McDonald’s alleged interference. They are also seeking attorneys’ fees in a similar amount.
“Mr. McDonald never intended to comply with this court’s orders,” Robinson said.
The CLG attorneys allege that McDonald violated the court’s orders and confused clients by misrepresenting to them that he would be keeping their cases, or by providing inaccurate information about CLG or the attorneys’ qualifications.
The motion also alleges that McDonald used “caller ID spoofing” tactics to make it look as though a call was coming from the CLG attorneys. The purpose, they alleged, was to get clients who had been ignoring McDonald’s calls to answer so he could convince them to return their case to GMA.
McDonald filed a response denying the allegations and, in the instance of the spoofing claims, said he doesn’t even know how to use such technology. He is represented by attorney Leslie Haley of Haley Law in Midlothian.
Haley argued Wednesday that McDonald has done his best to comply with the court’s orders as quickly as possible, calling CLG’s allegations a “one-sided story.”
“We have a duty to make sure clients have made an informed decision and once they have, we have handed over the files,” Haley said.
As for McDonald’s lawsuit filed last month, he’s asking Henrico County Circuit Court to order the CLG attorneys to uphold the terms of the compensation agreements. That includes a requirement for the attorneys to give GMA a cut of any fees generated from cases started during their employment at the firm.
The agreement also states that attorneys should notify their clients that they are leaving the firm in a joint letter along with GMA. Haley has argued in the Richmond Circuit Court case that it was unethical for the CLG attorneys to contact clients by telephone to get verbal confirmation of their intent to follow them to the new firm.
McDonald’s complaint includes a seventh attorney, Benjamin Andrews, as a defendant. Andrews left GMA in January to join Halperin Law Center but was not part of his colleagues’ motions against McDonald in Richmond Circuit Court.
The CLG attorneys and Andrews have asked to have McDonald’s filing in Henrico County tossed out, alleging that the compensation agreements are void because a provision within them violates rules of attorney professional conduct.
McDonald is represented in the Henrico case by William Bayliss of Williams Mullen.