Saturday, February 18, 2012

3 Pulaski judges named in lawsuit

Posted By on Sat, Feb 18, 2012 at 4:14 PM


It's not every day that three Pulaski circuit judges get named in a lawsuit, but it happened last week.

Bennie O'Neil, a North Little Rock lawyer, named Judges Alice Gray, Wendell Griffen and Leon Johnson in a lawsuit over the difficult path he says he met in Judge Gray's court in getting a settlement paid, including his attorney fees, to the mother of a child killed by a taxicab. Griffen and Johnson were not judges at the time, but were among a number of lawyers Gray brought in — needlessly says O'Neil — to represent various interests in the case. That process resulted in more than $50,000 in additional legal fees potentially payable against the settlement.

Here are the central pages of O'Neil's complaint. He's claiming interference with his business, conspiracy and abuse of process. He concedes Judge Gray is likely immune because she was acting in her official capacity, but suggests a court should revisit immunity in a case where the alleged abuses are so egregious. He refers to her throughout as the "unnamed defendant."

Race is a major part of the complaint. O'Neil, who is black, says Gray, because she was elected from a majority black sub-district, had advantages in her election and was not given the same scrutiny as candidates of other races. He notes that the two other attorneys named as defendants are also black, as are several other attorneys involved in the proceedings, most of whom he refers to as "friends" of the judge. He contends the judge conspired to generate fees for them and hijack a settlement he spent two years working to reach. He said the judge and the attorneys conspired to force him to enter a settlement agreement to pay unjustified amounts to others.

The dispute is over a $362,000 wrongful death settlement, a third of which was to go to O'Neil as a legal fee, with most of the rest after fees and expenses to go to the mother. O'Neil alleges that other lawyers tried to arrange payments for, among others, the child's putative father, a federal inmate whose paternity was never established before the child died. Griffen was appointed by the judge to a role in the case and Johnson was appointed to represent Griffen when O'Neil objected.

O'Neil has won elements of the case on appeal, but he says the defendants are still conspiring to resist payment six years after the child's death.

It's a little Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, with a heavy dose of judicial conduct and racial politics thrown in. O'Neil said he was forced to file the unusual action because Judge Gray has demonstrated that he and his clients have "no rights in her court she is bound to respect."

He takes a leap further, suggesting that the Arkansas Supreme Court should reconsider majority-minority subdistricts for judges in Pulaski County — "where only black lawyers can generally be elected as judges" — given "the lack of temperance, desire for power and influence generated by these minority appointments and complete failure of adherence to the rule of law by the unnamed defendant [Gray] and the named defendants who have since become judges." The Supreme Court has no say over the subdistricts, a product of a settlement of a federal racial discrimination lawsuit over judicial elections.

The defendants can be expected to dispute O'Neil's allegations. The case was originally assigned to Judge Tim Fox, but is unlikely to be heard by any Pulaski County colleagues.

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