Frivolous Conflicted Representation. Where Else but Harris County?

 Posted on December 18, 2008 in Uncategorized

From Social Services for Feral Children comes this story, which the Houston Chronicle seems to have flat-out missed.

Follow along here:

Elizabeth Shelton has a car crash. She rear-ends Lance Bennett (no relation AFAIK; I have a cousin Lance who went to LSU, but I don't think he's a truck driver). Her boyfriend, Matthew McNeice (the Chronicle renders it McNiece, but the District Clerk's civil records have McNeice), is killed in the crash. Elizabeth's SUV is destroyed.

Elizabeth is prosecuted for intoxication manslaughter. She is convicted. That is, a jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that she caused McNeice's death by reason of her intoxication.

Almost two years after the accident, Elizabeth sues Lance for the damage he did to her truck (and her manicure - oh. mah. god.) when she rear-ended him while intoxicated, causing McNeice's death.

This is the sort of thing that has the tort reformers slavering - SSFC schools us Texas lawyers on negligence and contrib - and that's where the Houston Chronicle's reportage seems to end.

But SSFC, one of my new blogospheric favorites, didn't stop there. For some reason he looked up the case in the Harris County District Clerk's records (hey, I didn't even know that search page existed!). Here's what he found:

Mark T. Sandoval, the lawyer for Elizabeth Marie Shelton (the woman who, already convicted of causing Matthew McNeice's death by reason of her intoxication, is suing the man whose truck she hit) is also the lawyer for Barbara Chapman and Sid McNeice.

Who are Barbara Chapman and Sid McNeice? Representatives of the Estate of Matthew McNeice, the young man who was killed while "hanging out the window" of the drunk woman's truck, "and yelling joyfully", who is also suing the truck driver. Of course.

You would expect that the family of the man who Elizabeth killed might sue Elizabeth for killing him. It's a laydown case since Elizabeth has been convicted of killing him.

Maybe that case has already been settled, and all of the accessible assets have been squeezed out of Elizabeth. But you would also expect the lawyer deciding when to stop squeezing not to be concerned about the interests of the squeezee - a jillion-dollar judgment that will follow Elizabeth around (in case she hits the lottery or makes something of her life) along with the cash from her insurance policy might be better than just the cash.

So it's strange that Sandoval, who as the lawyer for McNeice's estate was responsible for suing Shelton, is representing both the estate and Shelton. Not to belabor the point, but he's representing both the young man killed and the young woman already held legally responsible for snuffing out his life.

Doubly strange, Sandoval, as of April, had "also represented Shelton's wife in a lawsuit related to a fatal car crash involving their daughter, who was convicted of intoxicated manslaughter late last year." In cause number 2007-13580 Sandoval sued Lance Bennett on behalf of Shelton's mother, Julia Rogers, alleging that on October 23, 2006 Bennett collided not with Shelton but with Rogers in an auto accident)

That's not generally the way we Texas lawyers roll. We actually know about conflicts of interest, and most of us don't go around filing blatantly frivolous lawsuits against people.

But there are three things you have to know about Mark Sandoval.

First, he spent the three years from September 26, 1997 to September 26, 2000 suspended from the practice of law for conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation, and the period from March 27, 1998 to March 26, 1999 doubly suspended from the practice of law (I couldn't find an announcement in the Texas Bar Journal explaining why, possibly because he was already suspended at the time).

Believe it or not, it's not easy for a Texas lawyer to get himself suspended; Sandoval had already been publicly reprimanded twice, on February 22, 1995 (for charging an illegal or unconscionable fee, and for failing to protect a client's interests on termination of representation) and on May 9, 1996 (for a laundry list of disciplinary violations).

Second, he takes appointments in Harris County juvenile cases. The appointed juvenile defense bar is not representative (to put it gently) of the Texas bar, the Harris County bar, or the Harris County defense bar as a whole. To put it less gently, the quality of representation that indigent kids accused of crimes get in Harris County is shameful.

Third - and I think this ties all the threads together neatly - Sandoval is appointed to juvenile cases almost exclusively by Harris County Juvenile Court Judge Pat Shelton - the father of Elizabeth Shelton.

[Update 12/18: More on Mark Sandoval.]

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