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Top Okla. Court Revives Lawyer’s Suit Against Co-Counsel Who Gave Her Zip in $12.3M Case

Posted Feb 1, 2012 2:00 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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A recent law school graduate who lined up a client for a wrongful conviction case early on in her legal career, then helped him file suit in federal court and retain more experienced counsel to pursue the case to a $14.5 million jury verdict is entitled to sue for a share of a subsequent $12.3 million settlement.

Although the co-counsel who took the case to verdict, R. Thomas Seymour, apparently argued in the subsequent state-court attorney fees dispute that Gina A. Cowley had abandoned the matter, Cowley pointed out in a deposition that she had guided her client into the capable hands of the Seymour Law Firm, according to an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision yesterday.

The court likewise found no merit to an argument that Cowley was not entitled to any payment for her work because, although she had filed a lien for attorney's fees, she did not comply with a state statute that sets forth provisions for collecting on such a lien.

Here, the issue was whether the Seymour Law Firm had complied with the terms of the co-counsel contract between the lawyers representing Cowley's client, Arvin McGee Jr., not whether Cowley had followed the procedure for collecting attorney's fees from a third party under a statute intended to protect lawyers from runaway clients, the opinion explains.

"We fail to see why this statute has been applied in this case to a contract with co-counsel, the appellees," the supreme court writes. "The appellees were certainly not adverse parties to their own client, who was also the client of the appellant. If the appellant had a valid attorney's lien, it would have been against the adverse party. The statute of limitations may have run against enforcement of the lien against that adverse party, but the breach of a contract for the division of attorneys' fees between the appellant and the appellees has no relationship at all to a lien enforceable against the adverse party in the underlying cause. The fact that all of the settlement was paid to the appellant's former client and to appellant's co-counsel would not have prevented an action against the judgment debtor had the appellant filed within one year. Neither the appellees nor the client was a judgment debtor."

The supreme court reversed a trial court's summary judgment on behalf of the Seymour Law Firm, based on an erroneous application of the lien statute, and remanded the case for further consideration of other defenses.

Cowley graduated from law school in 2001 and sought co-counsel after she took McGee's case in 2002 because of her lack of experience as a lawyer, the opinion notes.

The opinion says Cowley got paid nothing for her work on McGee's behalf and got nothing from the $12.3 million settlement.

A call by the ABA Journal seeking comment from Seymour did not receive an immediate response.

Cowley, who handled the appeal pro se, could not be reached for comment. A law office number formerly listed for her has been disconnected, and the supreme court opinion says she is no longer in practice after resigning in 2004 as a disciplinary case was pending.

However, in another opinion yesterday highlighted by the Legal Profession Blog, the supreme court reinstated Cowley to the Oklahoma bar.

Related coverage:

Strange Justice (2006): "Tulsa to Settle Wrongful Conviction Suit "

Tulsa World (2007): "Lawyer: Suits not about big money"

Tulsa World (2007): "Freed Tulsan fulfills promise to help fund a church"

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