Legal Ethics

Lawyer Fights Own Fee Dispute Simultaneously with PI Client's Case, Earns Over $1.5M, Is Disbarred

A New Hampshire lawyer who fought hard for his own claimed $2 million fee at the same time he was seeking an $11 million settlement on behalf of a paralyzed personal injury client earned a fee of over $1.5 million.

But Timothy O’Meara was also disbarred by the state supreme court, which said he had allowed his own interests to override those of his client, reports the New Hampshire Union Leader.

In a Tuesday opinion (PDF), the court explained that “Disbarment is necessary to protect the public and preserve the integrity of the legal profession when, as in this case, an attorney not only selfishly allows his own personal interests to take precedence over his duty of loyalty to his clients, but also lies to a tribunal. No lesser sanction will suffice.”

A professional conduct committee had recommended a three-year suspension of O’Meara’s law license. He did not immediately respond to the newspaper’s request for comment.

O’Meara was hired by Anita and James Conant, who lived and worked in New Hampshire, shortly after Anita Conant was left paralyzed by the 2005 accident. O’Meara entered into a one-page retainer agreement that provided for him to get a fee of one-third of the gross amount of any recovery, the newspaper recounts. The accident, which occurred in Pennsylvania, left Anita Conant a quadriplegic after her car was rear-ended at a red light by a commercial truck.

The company that employed the driver of the truck, Lyons & Hohl Paving Inc., did not contest liability and offered to settle the case for its $11 million insurance policy limit. However, O’Meara’s efforts to settle for $11 million were not authorized by the Conants, who were told at various times that her lifetime care costs could be $15 million to $23 million.

They also objected to paying O’Meara a reduced $2 million attorney fee for potentially settling the case within a few months of its Nov. 5 filing in federal court in Philadelphia. (The original agreement would have called for him to get $3.67 million.)

As a result, at the same time that the lawyer was representing the couple in mediation with the company over the accident, he was also arguing with them about his fee and, at one point, fearing that he would not represent them at the pending mediation if they didn’t agree, they signed a document accepting the $2 million fee.

After mediation, the couple finally agreed to settle for $11 million, plus another $500,000 from the company, which said it would go bankrupt if it had to pay more, after firing O’Meara.

The Conants then agreed to pay O’Meara $750,000 and arbitrated the disputed $1,250,000 portion of the fee. The arbitrator awarded O’Meara another $837,000, bringing his total fee for the case to $1,587,000.

However, the New Hampshire Supreme Court focused on an earlier revision of the representation agreement, initiated by both sides, in which they agreed Feb. 25, 2006 to negotiate O’Meara’s fee, and said it conflicted with a memorandum of understanding the lawyer faxed the couple the next day. The memorandum purported to confirm their agreement that the attorney fee would be negotiated, but also said the fee would be $2 million if the case didn’t settle for more than $11 million, the court’s opinion states.

When James Conant refused to sign, saying that the memorandum did not reflect their agreement, O’Meara literally told the couple Feb. 27, on the steps of the federal courthouse, that he would not represent them unless they agreed to his $2 million fee, the court writes. At that point, feeling that he had to do so to get O’Meara to proceed with the mediation, James Conant signed a revised agreement saying that O’Meara would get $2 million unless the case settled for over $14.5 million, in which case he would get 20 percent of any amount in excess of $14.5 million.

The court faulted O’Meara not only for pursuing the litigation without following his clients’ objectives and engaging in a conflict of interest by threatening to sue them for his legal fees but lying to the arbitration panel about the fee agreement. He “presented false testimony to induce the arbitrators into believing that the Conants had, in fact, agreed on February 25 to the essential terms of what later became the February 27 agreement,” the court wrote.

Although the professional conduct committee said O’Meara’s most serious violation of legal ethics rules was lying to the arbitrators, “Equally serious, in our view, is O’Meara’s … allowing his own interests to interfere with effective representation of the Conants under the circumstances, and, ultimately, by threatening to withdraw from representation on the morning of the mediation unless they acceded to his demand for a $2 million fee,” the court said.

“O’Meara’s conduct violated his duties to be truthful and to act in his clients’ best interests. … We regard these as bedrock duties of the legal profession.”

The Associated Press and Seacoast Online also have stories.

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