Workman case against Pa. attorney might get revived

By Lawrence Smith | Oct 24, 2008

Roy E. Bell of Fayetteville displays an oversized picture of his son, Jeremy, who was molested and murdered by his former elementary school principal Edgar W. Friedrichs in 1997. Last year, former state Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman filed suit against both Bell and Pennsylvania attorney Richard A. Peterson alleging Peterson lured Bell away as client in wrongful death suit she was assisting Bell with in Fayette Circuit Court. (Photo by Lawrence Smith)

CHARLESTON –- A state Supreme Court candidate says a lawsuit filed against a Pennsylvania attorney for allegedly stealing away a client of hers in a Fayette County wrongful death suit may be re-filed by another attorney.

But the former client –- whose son was molested and murdered by his former elementary school principal -– has indicated he's finished filing lawsuits.

On March 9, 2007, former Justice Margaret Workman filed suit in Kanawha Circuit Court against Roy E. Bell of Fayetteville, and Richard A. Peterson of Greenville, Pa. In her three-count complaint and suit, which she filed pro se, Workman accused both of breach of contract, tortious interference with a contract and slander.

According to court records, Workman alleges Bell hired her on Sept. 11, 2001, to assist him in becoming the administrator to the estate of his deceased son, Jeremy. Over a year later on Sept. 17, 2002, Fayette Circuit Judge John Hatcher ordered Bell as co-administrator of Jeremy's estate "thus placing him [Roy] in a decision-making role in the litigation equal to the former administrator, Mrs. Kimberly Ball, which is the relief that the Defendant Bell had sought."

Ball, records show, is Bell's ex-wife, and Jeremy's primary caregiver prior to his death on Nov. 7, 1997. With the assistance of Teays Valley attorney Frank Armada, Ball filed a wrongful-death suit against Edgar W. Friedrichs, the former Beckwith Elementary School principal at whose cabin in Thurmond Jeremy died.

Initially, Ball's suit, which was filed on Jan. 26, 1999, named only Friedrichs as a defendant. After Bell was named as co-administrator, the suit was amended on Feb. 18, 2003 to include the Fayette County Board of Education.

In both her suit, and a telephone interview with The West Virginia Record, Workman said through her "extensive investigatory and legal work" on Bell's behalf, she was able to reveal that the Board of Education aware of prior allegations leveled at Friedrichs for sexual deviant behavior.

"I'm the person who, on my own, went down to that county and investigated that case and found out some very crucial information," Workman said. " And that was teachers had actually gone to the school board and warned them that Mr. Friedrichs was not behaving in a proper manner toward children.

"I went down and interviewed former teachers, and my paralegal and I went down all those roads and talked with people. Yeah, I found that out."

Though her suit does not specify when, after Bell was named co-administrator, Peterson, with the law firm of Peterson and Gula, injected himself into the case. Along with Daniel Barber, a McKean, Pa., private investigator who was hired by Bell's cousin Elsie Deal in 1999 to conduct a probe into the suspicious circumstances of Jeremy's death, Peterson "acted in concert to control and interfere with the attorney-client relationship between the Plaintiff [Workman] and Defendant Bell."

Furthermore, Workman alleged that at Barber and Peterson's urging, "defendant Bell discharged the Plaintiff without good cause from such representation agreement without providing her" with any compensation for the work performed or expenses incurred. According to records in the wrongful-death case, Bell sent a letter to Workman dated Nov. 14, 2002 terminating her as his attorney.

"Such discharge and violation of the contract between the plaintiff and the Defendant Bell resulted in substantial financial damages to the Plaintiff," Workman alleged in her suit.

Playing puppetmaster

Peterson's actions were "especially grievous," Workman said, because Bell "was of limited intellect, was physically ill and was unable to assert and to understand his rights." Peterson, Workman says "a galley-type person who came in and tried to manipulate Roy Bell" who not only damaged her financially, but also politically.

According to her suit, Workman alleged "Peterson induced and encouraged the Defendant Roy Bell to make slanderous statements about the Plaintiff during the Plaintiff's campaign for the West Virginia State Senate in 2002."

"During 2002, the Defendant Bell went onto the television in the Charleston, Kanawha County, West Virginia area, and made statements, which were scripted, encouraged, supervised by the Defendant Peterson, and which constituted slander per se against the Plaintiff an attorney admitted to practice law in West Virginia."

When asked about the slanderous comments Bell via Peterson made, Workman said she didn't remember except they were in reference to she and Armada "mishandling the lawsuit." As further proof Peterson manipulated him, Workman said Bell expressed to her his regret about the television ads.

"Later on," Workman said, "I think Mr. Bell really regretted it, and he actually apologized to me at one point.

"He finally woke up and saw the light. And ultimately Mr. Armada and I finished the case for him as co-counsel. That proves who's competent and who wasn't."

Despite Peterson filing a complaint against them with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the investigative arm of the state Bar, in 2003, Workman said she and Armada considering filing one against him for unauthorized practice of law, but later decided against it. The reason, she said, was that "we didn't want to put the relatives of this little boy through any more."

Though her intent was to address Peterson's alleged unethical conduct, Workman said the wrongful-death suit coming to a conclusion made her decide it was time to end her suit.

"I'm just not a litigious person, and I decided to dismiss it and let it go," Workman said. "I didn't want to engage with Mr. Peterson any further. He'd already done enough to harm Roy Bell."

However, Workman said the conclusion of her suit may not be the end of legal action against Peterson as Armada is contemplating bringing a suit against him on Bell's behalf.

"Roy Bell is considering suing Mr. Peterson because he didn't get him any money in the federal lawsuit," she said.

Along with the wrongful-death suit in state court, Bell, with the assistance of not only Peterson, but also Roanoke, Va., attorney Wayne Inge and Pittsburgh attorney Timothy P. O'Brien, filed on April 15, 2003 filed a civil rights suit in U.S. District Court in Beckley against Friedrichs, the Board of Education and several school administrators. After the case was bifurcated on the question of statute of limitations and responsibility, a jury on Jan. 13, 2006, found in favor of the defendants that the case was filed past the statute of limitations.

According to court records, Bell on April 3 notified Peterson that he was terminating him in all matters related to Jeremy's estate.

On April 28, Peterson filed in Fayette Circuit Court a motion to withdraw as counsel of record, and a lien for expenses and services he provided while as counsel.

On Dec. 14, without admitting any guilt, the Board agreed to settle the wrongful-death suit. Through their insurers, AIG Claim Services, National Union Fire Insurance Company and General Star the Board agreed to pay the estate $2.25 million.

After three months of mediation, the parties agreed on how to distribute the funds. On Mar. 12, 2007, Hatcher ordered that Bell and Ball each receive $500,000, Jeremy's two sisters each receive $250,000 and $750,000 be set aside for attorney fees.

Though her name is not on the final settlement agreement -– as records show Parkersburg attorney Andrew C. Woofter III at that point represented Bell -– Workman claims credit for bringing the case to a conclusion.

"All I can tell you is that I did a really thorough job in that case and ultimately the only people who got Roy Bell or any other member of that estate any recovery is myself and Frank Armada," she said.

Contradictions abound

Along with not being a part of the final settlement in the wrongful death suit, some of Workman's other assertions and allegations are contradicted by court records.

When asked if it was during her 2002 campaign for state Senate that Peterson put Bell up to making the slanderous allegations against her, Workman said "yes." However, when reminded she ran for U.S. Congress that year, and not state senate, Workman replied, "Oh, that must be a typo."

In the 2002 Democratic primary for West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, Workman ran unsuccessfully against Charleston attorney James M. Humphreys, who was later defeated in the general election by incumbent Republican Shelley Moore Capito. Though nominated in 2004 by the Democrats to run for state Senate in Kanawha County, incumbent Republican Vic Sprouse defeated Workman.

Also, Workman's suit against Bell and Peterson was dismissed on Oct. 10, 2007, by Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod J. Kaufman after her failure to serve process on them after 120 days of filing suit.

Furthermore, though her suit alleges she suffered "substantial financial damages," Workman did receive some compensation for her efforts. During a hearing held on March 9, 2007 -– the same day Workman filed her civil suit -– when Hatcher asked Armada if he and Workman had "resolved their differences," Armada said they had.

"I told her that I would protect her interest, and add up any fees secured by me," Armada said. "She would be ... her cost and fees would be paid."

"Out of what you get?" Hatcher asked.

"That's right," Armada replied.

When asked how much of the $636,793.55 in attorney fees Armada was awarded that she received, Workman said she couldn't remember except it was "not anything close to the work I performed in this case."

The remaining $113,206.45 in attorney fees went to Peterson.

If the amount she earned wasn't contained in the court file, then Armada would be able to say what it was, Workman said. However, Armada did not return telephone calls seeking a comment on either the share of attorney fees given to Workman or a potential suit against Peterson.

Credit, money undeserved

Despite Peterson declining to comment on Workman's suit, Bell was less reluctant to talk. Though interviewed at his home in Fayetteville prior to Workman claiming Armada may be pursuing a lawsuit for him against Peterson, Bell says he wants nothing more to do with lawyers, particularly Armada.

"I don't think any of them should have gotten any money," Bell said. "I know Frank Armada didn't deserve any."

Also, the only thing Bell, 53, a now disabled lineman, gave Workman credit for was getting him named as co-administrator to Jeremy's estate, which, contrary to her claim, is not what he wanted. Though she was instructed to get Ball removed as administrix of Jeremy's estate and him admitted as the sole administrator, Workman, Bell said, wanted to do things her way.

"She's not a people person," Bell said. "She thinks she's so much smarter than anybody else. From the way I see it, she's still calling me a dumb-ass and mad at Barber and Peterson."

For the record, Bell says that he did do a television ad critical of Workman during the 2004 campaign. However, he approached Sprouse about it on his own, and not at anybody's direction.

The intent of the suit was never about money, Bell said. Instead, he, along with Barber, hoped to use the information they gained though discovery to encourage authorities to bring criminal charges against Friedrichs.

According to court records, that came to pass when first on Jan. 30, 2002 Friedrichs was first convicted of one count of 1st degree sexual abuse and three counts of sexual abuse by a custodian in the cases of Jonathan Treadway and Michael Pascocciello. Three years later on Aug. 1, 2005, a jury found Friedrichs guilty on charges of 1st degree murder and the death of a child by a custodian in Jeremy's case.

However, Bell said he was hoping the wrongful death suit could be used to root out other suspected pedophiles in Fayette County.

"I don't think that little bit we got out of them [the Board of Education] hurt them a bit," Bell said. "I still think somebody needs to come down here and investigate this case from day 1, and everybody involved. But that won't happen neither."

In the meantime, Bell says there's not a moment that goes by he doesn't think of Jeremy. To avoid the "10 years of Hell" he went through, Bell says parents should "be careful when they send those kids off to school."

Along with fellow Democrat Menis Ketchum and Republican Beth Walker, Workman is vying for one of the two open seats on the Court this election. The top two vote-getters will each be elected to a 12-year term.

Workman previously served on the Court from 1989 to 1999. Before becoming the first woman to hold a statewide elected office, Workman was the first woman circuit judge, serving in Kanawha County from 1981 to 1988.

Kanawha Circuit Court Case No. 07-C-430

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