Kanawha County getting pro bono work in Plants case

By Chris Dickerson | Aug 5, 2014

HUNTINGTON — A prominent Southeastern law firm is providing pro bono services to Kanawha County in its bid to remove its prosecuting attorney from office.

Nelson Mullins, which has an office in Huntington, will represent the Kanawha County Commission in its case against Mark Plants. Melissa Foster Bird will be the lead litigator on the case.

She says she already has started work on a petition to remove Plants, and she hopes to have it ready for the commission's Aug. 14 meeting.

"After that, I think it will be a fairly quick process," Bird said of the legal road ahead.

After the petition is filed in Kanawha County, it will go to the state Supreme Court. The chief justice will set a three-judge panel to hear the case. Then, that panel will collect evidence. There might be a hearing as part of that process. Then, the panel will decide if Plants stays in office or is removed.

"The way I read the law, there is no in between," Bird said. "He either stays, or he goes."

Bird said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper approached Nelson Mullins about representing the county in the matter.

"We did have a case against each other last year," Bird said of Carper, who is a plaintiffs attorney with the firm of Hill Peterson Carper Bee Deitzler in Charleston . "I’m not sure what their thought process was, but they got to us. When they contacted us, they did it because they knew us.

"Then, after they said they wanted us to handle the case, that's when we took the steps internally to see if we could do the case pro bono."

Carper echoed Bird.

"After a very cursory review of the matter, it became pretty obvious to me that this (Charleston and Kanawha County) is a small community -- a tight legal circle -- and we needed to go a little out of the area to find someone to bring the petition," Carper said. "It’s not uncommon for lawyers to know each other around here.

"We really felt -- I did, especially -- we needed someone with the ability to handle a complicated case who could litigate. And someone who has an impeccable set of credentials. After I went out of the boundaries of this small area, they are the first ones I came to."

He had high praise for Bird and the firm.

"First, I have seen her be a very tough yet compassionate person," he said. "Second, I’m very well aware of their law firm and their national reputation. It seemed to be a good place to start. I didn’t put a help wanted sign out. I didn’t call 100 people. It wasn't necessary. I sought them out.

"They have a great reputation. And it's earned."

Carper liked that Nelson Mullins wanted to look into working the case for free.

"They mentioned their pro bono program after we had decided to go with them," Carper said. "We did not bring it up. I wasn’t aware of that program. But, the taxpayers of Kanawha County and the State of West Virginia are very grateful."

Carper said the county commission will pay the firm's expenses such as travel and meals. It's just the hourly fee, which might normally be hundreds of dollars per hour, that falls under the pro bono umbrella.

Bird noted that Nelson Mullins, which is based in South Carolina, has a long history of pro bono work.

"In this case, we are representing the Kanawha County Commission, but we also are representing the citizens of Kanawha County and West Virginia," Bird said. "The county already has spent nearly $100,000 because of this situation. And they'll be spending more. We think this is a time when our pro bono work can be beneficial to thousands of people. The people of Kanawha County and the people of West Virginia have an interest in this matter."

"The firm has a commitment to public interest work and requires all lawyers to handle pro bono matters," said Marc Williams, managing partner of Nelson Mullins' Huntington office. "We thought it made sense in light of the issues in the case, and the money the county had already spent in dealing with Plants disqualification,  to handle it pro bono."

Last week, the Kanawha County Commission unanimously voted to draft the petition, citing “irreparable financial harm” to the county if Plants were to stay in office. County attorneys asked to seek outside counsel in the matter.

So far, Kanawha County has paid $92,000 to two special prosecutors. Sid Bell is prosecuting misdemeanor domestic charges against Plants, and Don Morris is handling cases involving child abuse because Plants and his office are disqualified from doing so. Officials expect to spend about $300,000 more while Plants attends a 32-week Batterer’s Intervention and Prevention Program in Putnam County.

In March, Plants was charged with domestic battery for punishing his son with a belt and leaving a bruise on the boy’s thigh. He later was charged with violating a protective order after he approached his ex-wife’s car outside a Charleston pharmacy in which his sons were sitting alone. In June, Plants agreed to attend the batterer's program in Putnam County.

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