Fight or flight?
Dallas attorney Brian Loncar vows in his hard-to-miss TV commercials, "I'll fight for you." Of course, that presumes he'll show up when the judge calls your case, and not send some coffee-fetching flunky who doesn't know a pleading from a Post-it note.
That's a presumption you might not want to make, says Denton resident Walter Waddle, a recent Loncar client.
In the January 9 Dallas Observer cover story, "Smash 'em and smile," several former Loncar employees described the attorney's office as something akin to a hospital without doctors, a place where non-lawyers do legal work with little or no supervision. The article also detailed allegations from former female employees that Loncar had a habit of describing to them his sex life in disgusting detail, telling one woman, for instance, how he and his wife "fucked four times yesterday."
The story prompted a letter from Dallas attorney Stephen James Raynor, who suggested that the Observer "spend less ink on Mr Loncar's personal predilections, peccadillos, or perversions and more time on Loncar's lawyering abilities or lack thereof."
He introduced the story of Waddle, a 40-year-old Denton man who gathered his own client's-eye view of the workings of Loncar's shop when he ran up a string of three criminal charges for driving while intoxicated last year and hired Loncar to represent him.
Waddle is currently in the Denton County jail, and according to Raynor--whom Waddle hired last month after he canned Loncar--he's in there because Loncar didn't see fit to show up for a November 4 court appointment or to rectify his mistake afterward.
Loncar screwed up a few other things too, Waddle claims, including not knowing exactly what charges Waddle was facing, even after being reminded by him and his ex-wife at least three times.
One thing Loncar didn't have any trouble doing, though, was demanding his fee. He asked for $2,500 up front, Waddle says, and complained bitterly when Waddle was slow paying the last $350 of that sum.
Loncar, asked to comment last week, replied, "No," and hung up the phone. In a letter to Waddle, he says, "I have done nothing wrong in this case."
The story begins in the early 1990s, when Waddle, a church choir director with a master's degree in music and a job as a courier, became mired in alcoholism and its frequent side-effect: DWI charges.
In 1991, after being arrested for two DWIs, Waddle hired Loncar on a recommendation from an attorney who was friends with Waddle's wife. At that point, Loncar had a small practice, and Waddle was pleased with his handling of the cases.
Loncar plea-bargained the cases to suspended jail time and a two-year probation, records show. Waddle stayed out of the way of the law for four years, until last June, when he was arrested again for DWI, this time in Denton. Four months earlier, his wife Alisa had ended their 17-year marriage, but they remained close, and he was helping support their three kids.
Between June and the critical court appearance in November, Waddle was arrested twice more in Denton--on September 29 and October 10--and had begun attending an alcohol treatment program in Arlington, he says. After Waddle's October arrest, Alisa, who works as a legal secretary, says she called Loncar's office and told him that her husband had been arrested again for DWI. Loncar told her that he would "take care of everything," she says.
Waddle paid a total of about $1,200 to a Denton bail bond company and was free pending trial on all three charges in October and early November.
On Friday, November 1, Waddle recalls, his bail bondsman notified him that he was scheduled to appear before District Judge L. Dee Shipman on Monday, November 4. Denton bail bondsman Lee Mitchell confirmed that he sent Waddle the notice.
"I immediately contacted Brian's office and they said that Brian was going to be in mediation on the 4th, but that they would contact the court and get the hearing rescheduled since I was still in treatment," Waddle recalls.
In a sworn affidavit, Alisa Waddle says her ex-husband was at her house on the morning of November 4 because one of their children was sick. She remembers asking him to call Loncar's office again to confirm that the court appointment had been rescheduled.
"Walter used the telephone in my presence at approximately 8 a.m. to contact the office of his attorney because he had been informed...he was scheduled to appear in court that morning," the ex-wife wrote the court in her affidavit.
"The individual he spoke to in Brian's office told Walter that Brian would be in mediation that day and that Walter should go ahead and go to treatment because their office would fax a letter of explanation to the court and request a continuance.
"Acting upon the suggestion of his attorney's representative, Walter attended chemical dependency treatment on November 4 rather than appearing in court. His attendance can be verified by the treatment facility if necessary."
Raynor, Waddle's new lawyer, wrote the judge later: "According to his ex-wife, the only reason Mr. Waddle is currently in jail is because of the failure of Mr. Brian Loncar to appear in your court and pass a case for announcement [meaning postpone the appearance until a later date]. Word is that you would not allow his paralegal to pass the case."
Both Waddle and his ex-wife say that various employees in Loncar's office--all non-lawyer aides or assistants--told them that Loncar employees had tried to fax an explanation to the court, and that a non-lawyer employee had gone to court to try to pass the case to a later date. "One of the people in his office said the judge was upset that an attorney wasn't there," Waddle says.
Judge Shipman told the Observer he would not discuss Waddle's case, but added: "Generally, it's against the law for someone to appear and purport to be a lawyer. They have to be licensed for them to appear before the court. I don't let people come in and act as a lawyer if they are not."
Dallas attorney William Shirer, who worked from 1993 to 1995 as one of two lawyers employed by Loncar, says it wouldn't have been the first time some unlicensed underling from Loncar's office was dispatched to do lawyer work.
"He'd send people, non-lawyers, and the judge wouldn't know unless the person he sent was a blithering idiot. How are they supposed to know who in the crowd is a lawyer?" Shirer says. "There were two law students that were extremely nervous about being sent. They didn't like doing it."
In Waddle's case, Loncar had a week, until November 11, to appear in court with his client and clear up the problem, Raynor says.
Waddle says he didn't even know there was a problem until the following Saturday, November 9, when he received a letter from Loncar stating that his case had "gone NISI."
The term means that the court ordered Waddle's bail bondsman to pay his full bond to the court because Waddle didn't show up. That was $7,500, according to court papers.
Loncar's letter also stated, "We have tried on numerous occassions [sic] to contact you at several different numbers but have been unsuccessful."
Waddle says he didn't know what "gone NISI" meant, but called Loncar the same day. Loncar returned his call. "When I asked him why his office had told me not to go to court and why he had not appeared in court himself, he said, 'I don't want to hear any shit about my staff, you still owe me money,'" Waddle says. He had paid $2,150 of Loncar's $2,500 fee--money he says it took him two months to earn.
Waddle says Loncar told him to call his office on Monday and Tuesday, but both days he says Loncar was not available to return his call. A week later, Loncar called Waddle and said he had "worked something out" with the district attorney. Waddle says he assumed that meant the bond problem was being handled, too.
Waddle says he was more than surprised when a pair of sheriff's deputies came to his apartment on December 13 and arrested him for failing to appear in court on November 4.
From there, Waddle's relationship with Loncar began deteriorating. He says he was taken to court as scheduled on December 18, but once again, Loncar was nowhere to be found. Court documents show that Loncar had rescheduled the appearance to a date in February, but Waddle says that was news to him. Loncar's office wouldn't accept his collect calls from jail, Waddle says.
Then they began arguing over whether Loncar knew about the October and September DWIs, and whether his fee covered his representation in those cases.
In a December letter to Waddle, Loncar claimed that nobody told him about the subsequent DWI charges, and that he had been hired only on the first case.
(If a lawyer is in Shipman's courtroom, he or she can easily check a client's charges by crossing the hallway and typing the client's name into a public-access computer terminal. The information pops right up.)
On December 19, Raynor appeared in court, alone, and handed Shipman a motion stating that Waddle had hired him as a substitute for Loncar. Without bringing Waddle to the court to verify his wishes, Shipman approved the motion and set a new bond amount: $5,000. "He must have known what was going on," Alisa says.
Waddle says he couldn't afford the new bond, so he's been in jail since December. His ex-wife said Monday that he is filing a grievance with the State Bar of Texas.
Says his ex-wife: "Walter doesn't have a problem with serving time for this. He knows he has a problem. His complaint is paying a lawyer $2,400, and not having him show up.
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