Testimony in Katrina legal malpractice case concludes in Orleans Parish

By Alejandro de los Rios | May 21, 2010



Testimony concluded in a legal malpractice bench trial presided over by Judge Piper Griffin on Thursday at Orleans Parish Civil District Court.

New Orleans resident Michael Brown is suing his former counsel, Harry Cummins and Ray Orrill Jr., for legal malpractice stemming from a hurricane Katrina suit in which Orrill and Cummins had represented Brown.

Cummins and Orrill allegedly mishandled Brown's trial, were unprepared for depositions, overcharged for travel expenses and failed to pay a jury bond on time, costing Brown up to $1 million in the final settlement, before Brown terminated his counsel.

Cummins works for the New York law firm Wilkofsky, Friedman, Karel and Cummins, through which he represented Brown in the original suit filed in 2006. New Orleans attorney William Wright Jr. is representing Cummins in the legal malpractice suit. Wright also is representing Orrill, a New Orleans attorney with Orrill, Cordell and Beary.

Thibodeaux attorney Jerald Block is representing Brown in the legal malpractice suit.

According to the last day of testimony in the bench trial, Cummins represented Brown, the Tara House Condominium Association and MLB Mortgage and Investments Inc. by commuting from his home in New Jersey to New Orleans from October 2006 until he was terminated in January 2009. That case settled in mediation for $1.6 million, with $1.5 million going to Brown after legal fees.

In his testimony, Brown said that he believed Cummins' actions before termination were a major factor in Brown's hurricane suit settling at $1.6 million. Brown said that he was looking for up to $2.8 million in damages from James River Insurance.

New Orleans attorney David Halpern, who ended up finishing the case in place of Cummins, testified that Brown had approached him in the December 2008 regarding Brown's dissatisfaction with his current counsel and how the hurricane suit was proceeding. Halpern said that, at the time, he believed Cummins' representation was a breach of standard of care. Brown then paid Halpern's firm, McGlinchey Stafford, a $150,000 retainer to begin the process of taking over as counsel in the trial. Halpern said it was "Herculean effort" to convince his partners to take on a trial with just five weeks to prepare.

New Orleans attorney Geoffrey Ormsby testified that Brown had also sought the counsel of Ormsby's firm, Smith and Fawer, to take over for Cummins. Ormsby said that, after calling the Orleans Civil District Court clerk's office, he learned that Cummins had failed to post a jury bond within 60 days of a trial date. Ormsby said that, because the defense had filed a motion to strike the jury as a result of the bond not being paid, he declined to represent Brown.

In his testimony, Cummins said that, while he was working on other cases in Louisiana at the time he was representing Brown, he never charged travel or other expenses to Brown that weren't related to his case. He also said that he prepared up to 20 hours for every deposition that he conducted and had many pages of notes, but that he threw them away once depositions were done.

Cummins' testimony also revealed that, after a mediation hearing in July 2008 with James River's attorney, Ronald Sholes, Brown's dealings with Cummins took "a distinct negative turn." Cummins then refused e-mail correspondence with Brown, saying that he believed direct communication through telephone was the best way to keep from being misconstrued. Brown, accompanied by his wife in the courtroom, repeatedly shook his head while Cummins testified.

Judge Griffin set the deadline for the defendants' post-trial memo for June 7 and the plaintiff's deadline two weeks later on June 21.

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