Suits pile up in 'weird' case of suspended Alabama lawyer

By Pat Murphy

The Daily Record Newswire

It's ten malpractice suits and counting against a suspended Alabama attorney and the firm that used to employ him in what one plaintiff's lawyer said is the strangest case he's ever encountered.

"It's the weirdest thing I've seen in 44 years of practicing law," said Tuscaloosa attorney Delaine Mountain. In March, Mountain filed the first in what has become a steady stream of malpractice cases against Byron Edwin House and Cockrell & Cockrell, the firm that used to employee House.

House was suspended April 19, 2012, by the Alabama State Bar Disciplinary Commission in the wake of allegations that he took on multiple clients and then did nothing in their cases. The interim suspension is pending a full investigation into the matter. House is allegedly contemplating surrendering his law license.

"He just out and out lied to the people he was representing," Mountain said. "He'd tell them he had filed suit when he hadn't filed suit, and then tell them he settled, when in fact he had not settled."

Mountain's client, Shai Pruitt, sued House and Cockrell & Cockrell for legal malpractice in Alabama state court on March 1, 2012. According to Pruitt's complaint, she retained House to represent her in four cases between 2006 and 2008. The cases included claims for personal injury and employment discrimination. Over time, House allegedly informed Pruitt that he obtained settlements totaling more than $1.8 million in those cases.

Incredibly, House allegedly concocted a scheme to get some payments to Pruitt in order convince her that she had funds in a structured settlement.

Pruitt eventually became suspicious and now alleges that House never filed three of the lawsuits, and doubts whether there ever was any settlement in the fourth case. According Pruitt's complaint, all of her claims are now barred under the applicable statutes of limitations.

According to The Tuscaloosa News, in addition to Pruitt's suit, two other lawsuits were filed against House in March. Now there are a total of ten pending lawsuits. According to the paper, the latest suit was filed June 6 by a client who alleged that House failed to file a personal injury suit for a 2004 car accident.

Mountain said that there may be more than 25 clients with similar claims against House and Cockrell & Cockrell, explaining he has had to turn away around a dozen of the cases himself due to ethical considerations.

"There's a lot more out there," Mountain said.

Pruitt's lawsuit against Cockrell & Cockrell includes claims for negligent supervision and retention. Mountain explained that the law firm is claiming that it had no knowledge of House's actions, asserting a statute of limitations defense to many of the claims.

"They're defending these cases to the hilt," Mountain said.

Cockrell & Cockrell's managing partner, Bobby Hill Cockrell Jr., filed an affidavit in House's disciplinary proceeding. In the affidavit, Cockrell said that he and his wife and law partner, Ginger Cockrell, first learned that there was a problem in January 2012 when Mountain contacted him about the Pruitt case.

"This was all a complete shock to me and my wife," Cockrell said in his affidavit. "We loved Mr. House like our own son and trusted him implicitly."

But Mountain wasn't buying it.

"If they didn't know, they should have known," he said.

In the affidavit, Cockrell stated that, when he confronted House, the lawyer broke down, apologized, said he was an alcoholic, and confessed that his life had been a "living hell" as he tried to "kick the can down the road" in the hopes that it would all somehow work out in the end.

According to Cockrell's affidavit, in addition to making clear that the Cockrells had no knowledge of his actions, House said at the time, "They don't want people like me practicing law."

Published: Fri, Jun 29, 2012