The continued bad blood between a veteran local attorney and a team of his former associates is headed for another potential clash in the courtroom.
Geoffrey McDonald, CEO and president of personal injury firm Geoff McDonald & Associates, is suing nine local lawyers and two law firms over what he alleges was a “classic conspiracy” that involved the defendants working together to leave GMA, take the firm’s clients and cut McDonald out of his share of fees from ongoing cases.
“It was the individual defendants’ intention to do whatever was necessary to take as many of GMA’s clients with them to the defendants’ new law firms,” the suit states.
The suit, filed April 6 in Henrico County Circuit Court, is the latest chapter in the legal spat that began last January, when seven of the nine defendants left GMA en masse.
Six of the defendant attorneys, Seth Carroll, Jamie Karek, Elyse Stiner, Lauren Carroll, Dana Charback and Matthew Lastrapes, formed their own firm, Commonwealth Law Group.
The seventh, Benjamin Andrews, joined the Halperin Law Center. Both firms were named as defendants in the suit, as was Jonathan Halperin, head of HLC, and local attorney Jason Anthony.
This latest suit claims that the attorneys disregarded compensation agreements that dictated how case fees should be distributed should they part ways with GMA. Those agreements would grant McDonald a portion of the fees, sometimes as much as 75 percent, even if clients chose to follow the departing lawyers to their new firms.
McDonald claims six counts, including breach of contract, tortious interference with contract, statutory business conspiracy, common law conspiracy and unjust enrichment and wants a declaratory judgment.
The suit claims that McDonald is owed no less than $1.5 million in damages. The damages for his claim of statutory business conspiracy, which suggests that the defendants “acted in concert among themselves” to “willfully and maliciously harm” GMA, could be tripled to $4.5 million.
This is at least the fourth time the two sides have turned litigious since the mass departure from GMA. Upon leaving the firm in early 2014, the seven attorneys filed for an injunction against McDonald, claiming that he had locked them out of their offices and prevented them from retrieving calendars and files after learning their plans.
A Richmond Circuit Court judge ordered McDonald to give them access to the files, but when he allegedly refused, the seven attorneys claimed he should be found in civil contempt. That case is still active in the city and a decision has yet to be reached.
Seth Carroll, Lauren Carroll, Lastrapes, Stiner and Karek all later filed identical complaints against McDonald in Richmond Circuit Court, claiming that he had failed to remove promotional YouTube videos for GMA featuring the individual attorneys, constituting unauthorized use of names and pictures.
McDonald argued that GMA had the attorneys’ permission at the time the videos were posted, and the complaints were dismissed this March.
A separate case was filed by McDonald in Henrico County about a year ago, asking the court to declare that the fee compensation agreements that the lawyers had signed were valid and binding.
The court recently granted the request, delivering a final order on March 24 that deemed the compensation agreement valid. That gave McDonald grounds to file this latest suit over case fees.
McDonald’s suit claims that when he issued notices of the fees owed to him on Feb. 6, the defendants responded by filing a slew of complaints and injunctions, including six complaints with the Virginia State Bar against McDonald in an attempt to “leverage Geoff into settling any contract disputes.”
Five of the six bar complaints have been dismissed, according to the case.
Anthony was included in the suit based on his alleged involvement in influencing one of GMA’s clients to agree to transfer a particular case to Seth Carroll and his new firm. McDonald claims that case was vital to the launch of Commonwealth Law Group.
Halperin was included because he was allegedly aware of the compensation agreement and how much was owed to GMA when he hired Andrews.
Williams Mullen attorney Bill Bayliss is representing McDonald in the case. He could not be reached for comment.
None of the defendants have yet to file responses in Henrico Circuit Court regarding McDonald’s latest allegations.
Seth Carroll, speaking for himself and his colleagues, said they do not comment on pending litigation.
David Hopper of Cook, Heyward, Lee, Hopper & Feehan, is representing the defendants and did not return requests for comment by press time. Anthony and Halperin also did not respond by press time.