Lerner, the king of annoying but effective legal advertising in Nevada, is accused of misconduct in a complaint filed by the State Bar of Nevada’s Office of Bar Counsel. The complaint, filed Feb. 23, alleges the personal injury attorney “engaged in acts of misconduct warranting the imposition of professional discipline.”
The allegations go back to Lerner’s involvement with personal injury clients from the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon rig spewed 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf before it could be capped, creating economic and environmental damage in five states.
For nearly six years, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier of New Orleans has overseen the complex case involving billions of dollars and thousands of plaintiffs.
The judge hired Louis Freeh, former head of the FBI, to serve as special master in the case. Freeh’s investigation uncovered questionable actions by Lerner and two New Orleans attorneys, Jon Andry and Lionel Sutton.
The three attended law school at Tulane University and were friends. After Lerner graduated in 1990, he moved to Las Vegas and opened his law firm. Freeh said there was evidence the three attorneys tried to “corrupt the settlement process.” All three lawyers were sanctioned by the federal judge one year ago and told they could not represent plaintiffs who had signed with their firms.
At Barbier’s suggestion, Freeh submitted a grievance against Lerner in Nevada and the two Louisiana attorneys for violating Rules of Professional Conduct.
The State Bar complaint against Lerner accuses him of engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation and engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.
The Southern Nevada Disciplinary Board will hold hearings before making a recommendation on possible discipline. No hearing date has been set. The final decision will be up to the Nevada Supreme Court.
Lerner’s attorney, Dominic Gentile, said any wrongdoing cannot be pinned on Lerner, who did what he does best: He spent a million dollars on advertising in New Orleans and drew clients into the newly formed Andry Lerner law firm. Lerner’s defense is that he trusted Sutton, who told him there were no conflicts of interest.
Judge Barbier disagreed, writing, “Lerner cannot escape his own responsibility for his ethical lapse by not enquiring further.”
Lerner isn’t licensed to practice in Louisiana, Gentile said, so he didn’t represent clients there.
But he formed a law firm with Andry and a business with Sutton.
When Lerner learned Sutton’s wife, Christine Reitano, had gone to work for the office that approved settlements of claims, he wrote an email to Sutton asking, “How can we use that to our benefit?”
Lerner hoped her insider status would help Andry Lerner clients settle faster. “I need my claims expedited,” he wrote Sutton.
At least two factors work in Lerner’s favor. First, he didn’t lie to investigators, so he isn’t facing perjury allegations as Sutton and Andry are. Second, there was no evidence his claims were expedited.
One of Gentile’s legal arguments is that Freeh never should have been named special master because he has a potential conflict of interest: Freeh’s law firm has ties with BP’s law firm.
Assistant Bar Counsel Janeen Isaacson traced how referral fees were moved between companies owned by Lerner and Sutton. The arrangement resembled the children’s board game Chutes and Ladders.
Barbier said the “most troubling” part of the case was the way those referral fees were moved in “a circuitous way.”
In his sanction order last year, he wrote, “The harm that’s been done by all that’s occurred in this case here is to the integrity of the Court Supervised Settlement Program, to the integrity of the legal system.” Lerner has appealed that order.
Those “Get Glen” commercials aren’t going away any time soon.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column runs Thursdays. Leave messages for her at 702-383-0275 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her on Twitter: @janeannmorrison