CHARLESTON – A fifth legal ethics complaint has been filed against attorney Jim Humphreys and others who allegedly concocted a “cover-up” because he failed to properly represent clients in flood litigation.
Meanwhile, a related civil lawsuit has been assigned to a Webster County circuit judge after all Kanawha County circuit judges recused themselves from the matter. A status and scheduling hearing is set for later this month.
The latest legal ethics complaint was filed last month with the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel’s Lawyer Disciplinary Board. Wade Gilbert Ferrell of Cedar Bluff, Va., filed this one.
The Ferrell complaint is similar to others filed in the last few months by three other Cedar Bluff men and another by the daughter of a Virginia couple who has filed the Kanawha County lawsuit against Humphreys and his firm, James F. Humphreys and Associates LC.
Ferrell says he retained Humphreys and his firm to represent him sometime between July and September of 2001.
“Until recently, I believed Mr. Humphreys had filed a complaint on my behalf, and my case was being handled by him,” the complaint states. “He sent me correspondence indicating a complaint had been filed on my behalf in West Virginia in ‘In Re Flood Litigation.’ I saw a copy of the Flood Victim Newsletter that Ira Horne (the man who already has filed the lawsuit against Humphreys) had received, and I remember receiving a copy of same. …
“It said my complaint was filed. I recently learned that it was not true that my case was pending and that no complaint had been filed on my behalf by Mr. Humphreys.”
Ferrell included a copy of a March 6, 2006, court order from Raleigh Circuit Court showing his claim and claims by others was dismissed with prejudice. Also included was a letter from Humphreys’ firm explaining the ruling and saying the firm is working to determine its next step in the legal process.
“I never was informed about this court ruling by Mr. Humphreys or anyone at his office,” Ferrell wrote. “John Bailey, who was representing me at that hearing, was a lawyer from the Humphreys’ firm.”
Ferrell says his attorney told him his claim for flood damages never could have been properly filed in West Virginia because he lives in Virginia and the property is in Virginia. The West Virginia case was meant for plaintiffs in a seven-county area of southern West Virginia.
“He believes that to attempt to add my claim to the West Virginia action was an attempt to defraud the court,” Ferrell wrote, noting that his attorney consulted with an ethics expert about the matter.
In her complaint filed in September, Joyce Greeley of Salem, Ala., says her parents – Ira Calvary Horne and Mavis Horne – had Humphreys and his firm represent them for flood damage at their home in Tazewell County, Va., starting in 2002.
She says her father “was consistently informed that his case was being ‘worked on,’ and periodically through at least 2009, lawyers – and he believes non-lawyers – from or on behalf of Mr. Humphreys visited him at his residence on at least 2-4 occasions to assure him that they were working on his case and that his type of case takes a long time.”
Humphreys and his firm also are the defendants in a complaint filed Sept. 11 by the Hornes in Kanawha Circuit Court. In their complaint, the Hornes, who have lived on the property in Cedar Bluff near Bluefield for about 55 years, claim Humphreys and his firm “failed completely” to pursue claims that their home and property were damaged by flooding and rains resulting from Hurricane Camille in July 2001.
The Hornes, who are ages 79 (Ira) and 83 (Mavis), say the damage to their home and other structures “were made significantly more severe due to the prior disruption of terrain caused by construction related to the Tazewell County Airport” located near their property.
On Sept. 25, the Hornes filed emergency motions “to preserve all relevant file materials,” “to require production of plaintiffs’ entire file” and “to preclude defendants and their agents from intimidating and harassing witnesses.”
In the Sept. 25 motions, the plaintiffs claim “the defendants now have exacerbated the circumstances substantially by failing to assure plaintiffs’ counsel upon repeated requests that all relevant file materials will be preserved; by failing to turn over the entire file of the plaintiffs upon repeated requests; and, through their agents, by intimidating and harassing one or more former employees of the defendants who are witnesses to the events surrounding the defendants’ representation of the plaintiffs.”
The motion for relief is “simple,” according to the filing, and “not in any way harmful to the defendants.” “The plaintiffs have good reason to be concerned about whether these materials will be preserved, in part because when they sought assurances through their counsel from counsel to the defendants that the materials would be preserved, no such assurances were forthcoming,” the motion states.
It says there are no copies of known written communications to the Hornes.
In addition, it says Humphreys’ firm has repeatedly, “persistently and aggressively” called a former employee who has facts about the case “to persuade the witness to conform her views of the facts in this matter to be consistent with the position of the defendants in order to protect them from potential liability.”
In 2002, the Hornes approached Humphreys about representing them in possible flood litigation. Soon, they retained the firm to represent them in a case against the Tazewell County Airport Authority and others for flood damage.
“In undertaking the representation of the plaintiffs for the claims … the defendants accepted the duty and responsibility to pursue the plaintiffs’ claims competently and promptly, and to keep them advised of the progress of the attorneys in asserting the plaintiffs’ claims,” the complaint states.
“Rather than comply with the obligations they had undertaken, the defendants herein failed completely to pursue the claims of the plaintiffs … in a legally cognizable or timely manner … including never having filed any legal claims or actions in the Commonwealth of Virginia on behalf of the plaintiffs.”
The Hornes go on to claim the defendants, in 2006, attempted to attach the plaintiffs’ claims to mass flood litigation in West Virginia on behalf of flood victims in the Mountain State who were harmed allegedly by activities of coal and timber companies.
The “West Virginia legal action had nothing whatsoever to do with the claims of the plaintiffs, or other individuals similar situated, arising in Tazewell County, Virginia,” the complaint states. “Rather, the West Virginia legal action applied only to property and claims arising in West Virginia and suffered by citizens of … a seven-county area.”
In her Sept. 17 complaint, Greeley says some of the letters sent to her parents by Humphreys state that their case was part of this West Virginia litigation.
But, she alleges that is a lie.
“In August 2014, my father learned that the representations about his case were untrue,” she wrote. “That is, his case was never filed. He was never names as a plaintiff in the above-described lawsuit and, in fact, there had been court rulings that the statute of limitations had run and that his case of damage to property in Virginia could never have been properly filed in West Virginia.
“From information obtained from by parents’ lawyer, it is my belief that Mr. Humphreys knew the statute of limitations had run on my parents’ case, that he intentionally constructed a scheme to obscure this fact, and that he had directed his staff, including lawyers, to ‘cover-up’ this fact.”
She also notes that when Charleston attorney Rod Jackson, who is representing the Hornes in their complaint against Humphreys, asked for the files from Humphreys regarding the Hornes, “he was not given the entire file.”
“The activities of the defendants and their agents … were a sham and constituted an improper, futile and fraudulent maneuver to give the impression that they were pursuing claims of the plaintiffs in some manner, when in fact they were not,” the Hornes’ Kanawha County complaint states. “There was no reasonable, rational basis or substance to their actions.”
The claims of Horne and other Tazewell County residents were dismissed in West Virginia in April 2006.
The Hornes also say the defendants failed to keep them informed about their case and “fraudulently misrepresented” that the claims were being pursued.
“Such conduct … involved a continuing fraudulent scheme to mislead and lie to the plaintiffs, and included not only responding to plaintiffs’ inquiries addressed to the defendants through their agents, but also seeking out and personally visiting the plaintiffs purportedly to assure them that their claims were being handled properly and that there ultimately would be some recovery for them when in fact that was blatantly false.”
The Hornes say they only recently learned on Aug. 6 that Humphreys and his firm hadn’t pursued any claims and that they had misled them.
Jackson, the attorney representing the Hornes, called Humphreys actions “egregious.”
“I’m ashamed to be a lawyer when there’s somebody acting like this,” Jackson said when the complaint originally was filed. “We can back these allegations up. I don’t file complaints that I don’t think are warranted. I’m 67 years old. I’m too old for that.”
The Hornes say they have suffered damages “in a myriad of ways,” including inability to recover the property and related damages and losses, humiliation of “being treated disrespectfully and in an unethical and improper manner” and the outrage of being purposefully lied to by the defendants and treated as “insignificant individuals who did not deserve even a modicum of honesty and fair dealing.”
In addition to the destruction and diminution of their property, Ira Horne also cites the inability to use woodworking equipment irreparably damaged in the flood to earn income from cabinetmaking.
The Hornes allege negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, restitution and disgorgement of profits. They seek compensatory damages and punitive damages for the defendants’ “intentional, purposeful, reckless, fraudulent and reprehensible” gross misconduct as well as attorney fees and court costs.
The Hornes’ case has been assigned to Webster Circuit Judge Jack Alsop after all seven Kanawha circuit judges recused themselves. Alsop has a status/scheduling hearing set for Dec. 12 at the Webster County Courthouse.
Humphreys, a prominent asbestos plaintiffs attorney, is a former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate. He also ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000 and 2002, losing to Shelley Moore Capito both times.
Kanawha Circuit Court case number: 14-C-1684 (Horne)