The lawsuit filed this week against Dallas City Council member Tiffinni Young accusing her of barratry in the death of a woman by dog attack will provide us all with an opportunity to learn what barratry is. I know one thing already. This is going to be all about gray areas and fine distinctions.
Did Young reach out to a citizen for whom she felt great compassion — making hospital visits, checking up by telephone — going far and above the normal call of duty, only to have her good deeds punished with a cynical money-grubbing lawsuit?
Or did she try to manipulate a grief-staggered woman in order to help a friend make some easy money?
It’s a finer point than you might think, and that’s why I say it’s one for the attorneys to slice and dice. I’ll cut right to the chase now and tell you where I am on it at the moment: I have no idea if Young did anything illegal, and I think anybody else who tells you different is pulling your leg, at least for now.
This has to do with Matisha Ward, daughter of Antoinette Brown, the 52-year-old homeless woman killed by dogs in South Dallas on May 2. Ward is suing Young and a Florida lawyer for barratry, better known as ambulance chasing.
First offense barratry in Texas is a misdemeanor. Recent changes to the law provide that a $10,000 civil penalty can be claimed by the person who has been barratized, which is not a real verb, but then again I’m not a real lawyer, am I?
The law says a lawyer may not actively solicit business or hire a go-between to do it for him. For example, if a lawyer pays an orderly at the hospital to prowl the waiting room so he can slip the lawyer’s business card into the hands of stunned and grieving family members, that’s barratry.
But if you are the family member and the orderly strikes you as a slick guy, and if you whistle him over and ask him for the name of a good lawyer and he provides you the card, that probably is not barratry.
It’s not against the law to advertise, and it’s not against the law to refer. The thing that makes it barratry is the active hunting down and soliciting of clients.
And that’s what’s going to leave this Tiffinni Young business in a deep cloud of gray. Was she actively soliciting business for a particular lawyer? Or was she only trying to provide help and maybe some protection for an unsophisticated citizen to whom she had previously shown great kindness?
You tell me.
Brown, the woman killed by dogs, was homeless, sheltering at night in abandoned houses occupied by drug users. According to a lawsuit brought by Ward this week (copy below), Young reached out to Ward, even coming to the hospital before life support was removed from Ward’s mother. Ward, who lives in North Dallas, is not Young’s constituent.
Ward complains in her lawsuit that Young provided her with erroneous information about the attack on her mother. Ward says Young texted her four days after the attack and told her she was saddened by her mother’s death and was praying for the family. She gave Ward her phone number.
Ward called her back that day. She says in the suit that Young told her on the phone that the city had captured the dogs that had attacked her mother. But later that day Young texted Ward two more times asking her to call. In a third text, Young told Ward she had been misinformed about the dogs and that they had not been captured.
In the lawsuit, this exchange forms Ward’s first grievance against Young. She is quoted in the complaint: “I was very upset due to being provided with misinformation. I asked Ms. Young why she would tell me that she had the information on the case if the information was false.
“Ms. Young responded that she had obtained the information from someone in her office. I told Ms. Young that they needed to make sure the information was correct. Ms. Young apologized.”
Ward says in the suit she met with Young at the hospital two days later and Young told her, “I had a case but that she could not refer me to a lawyer because to do so was illegal.”
Four days later, Ward informed Young that she was speaking with a lawyer or lawyers. She says Young sent her a text saying, “Call me.” When Ward called, she says Young handed the phone to Christopher Chestnut, a lawyer who obviously was with Young in her office.
Ward talked to Chestnut. She told him, “I feel like somebody really need to pay for what happened to my mom, you know. And I feel like somebody need to pay me, I mean, because they took me — they took my mama away from her grandkids.
“I mean, so that the owner need to pay. The mayor need to pay. The animal business, whoever the people is, they need to pay.”
There is no claim in the lawsuit that Chestnut and Ward ever spoke again. I was unable to reach Young or Chestnut for comment, but Tom Carse, the lawyer representing Ward in the barratry suit, told me that barratry took place when Young handed the phone to Chestnut, the lawyer at her side.
Carse said, “Where they crossed the line, they solicited Ms. Ward. Ms. Ward didn’t have the opportunity to say, ‘Yes, I will call him.’”
That single act — Young handing the phone to Chestnut — converted all of Young’s previous apparent solicitude and kindness into a plot to help Chestnut land some business, Carse told me, whether Chestnut got the business or not.
“For example, let’s say that Ms. Young says to you, ‘Jim, instead of me giving you the name and number for Mr. Lawyer, why don’t I just go ahead and add him on the line?’
“Any self-respecting lawyer would go, ‘Whoa, wait a minute now, do not do that,’ because it is perceived to be exactly what we are saying it is: It’s a solicitation.
“You have to wrap your head around the distinction between marketing and solicitation.”
Well, no, I actually do not have to wrap my head around that distinction, because, thank heaven today, I am not a lawyer. But I wanted you to see how fine a line we are treading here.
Chestnut sued Florida A&M University in the 2011 death of Robert Champion, a college drum major beaten to death in a so-called hazing incident. The university’s defense was that it was not its job to “provide [Champion] with a personal chaperon to hover over his after-hours activities.”
Wow. Hover over? Nice, eh.
But just as Chestnut’s lawsuit was about to come to trial, the Florida Bar Association discovered that Chestnut had taken less than the full number of hours of continuing education classes required to sustain his license.
So they suspended him, knocking him out of court. I don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like a plot with a whole bunch of back story we don’t know about. For all we know, Chestnut may be the white-hat.
Carse told me he has filed over 20 barratry cases, all of which were settled out of court. He told me Ward was referred to him by another lawyer — properly. Ward is now represented by Jason Kipness. I asked Kipness if he had referred Ward to Carse. He declined to answer. Kipness was hired by Ward by contract several days after Ward’s conversation with Chestnut.
I mention all this because there already is a certain amount of conspiratology floating around out there to the effect that the barratry case against Young has been ginned up by her political rivals. Anything is possible, but I doubt it. I have pretty much given up on old-fashioned conspiracy theories to explain what happens at City Hall, preferring to seek my answers in the paranormal.
I hope you can tell by now how little I know about what’s really going on, so when I offer the following two-bit opinion you can assign the proper 25 cent value to it. Of all the elected officials at City Hall, no one of them seemed more deeply moved by Brown’s death than Young.
I don’t know what happened later, but I just can’t for a moment believe that her grief and her anger were fake. She looked real to me, and I admired her deeply for it. But remember what I said. Twenty-five cents.