On The Case

Star asbestos lawyer dinged as ‘unprofessional' in pro hac vice dispute

You think pro hac vice applications are routine? You might want to think again after hearing the story of Jessica Dean’s ill-fated application in an Iowa asbestos case.

Dean is the lead partner of Dean Omar Branham Shirley, a Texas plaintiffs firm with a solid record of multimillion-dollar asbestos verdicts, including a $32.7 million outcome against the insulation company Covil Corp in 2018. The firm is relatively small, but according to the defense consulting firm KCIC, accounted for 8% of all asbestos verdicts between 2017 and 2109.

Last January, Dean sought pro hac vice admission in Iowa’s Pottawattamie County in a case against 3M Co and several other defendants, including Ford Motor Co and Honeywell International Inc. Judge Richard Davidson quickly approved the application.

Then Ford and Honeywell got involved. On Feb. 25, the companies' lawyers at Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave and Bassford Remele informed the Iowa judge that Dean's application was not accurate. Specifically, Ford and Honeywell said, Dean stated in her Iowa application that she had not previously been denied pro hac vice admission in another state when, in fact, a judge in Bridgeport, Connecticut, rejected an application from Dean in 2015 after Dean failed to disclose her admission in a previous Connecticut case.

Moreover, Ford and Honeywell said, Dean’s Iowa filing stated that she had not recently been sanctioned, but that wasn’t true. In December 2019, a Minnesota state court judge ordered Dean’s firm to pay about $78,000 in defense fees and costs after a plaintiff’s witness violated an in limine order and the judge declared a mistrial.

Ford and Honeywell asked Davidson, the Iowa judge, to require Dean to refile a corrected pro hac vice application. That might not seem like a big deal, but their motion touched off what one of Dean’s colleagues would later describe as an “ordeal” for her and her firm.

In a response to the Ford and Honeywell motion, Dean Omar told Davidson that a misguided paralegal had filed the Dean pro hac vice application and several others that contained erroneous information without obtaining the lawyers' approval for the filings. This employee, the firm said, had disregarded Dean Omar policy, sometimes filing applications that were purportedly signed by firm lawyers without even informing the lawyers of the filings.

None of the six lawyers who sought pro hac vice admission from Davidson – including Dean – even knew those applications had been submitted, let alone that three of their filings were inaccurate, according to the firm.

The firm said it had reviewed dozens of pro hac vice applications filed across the country and had discovered additional problems in filings by the rogue paralegal. Dean Omar said it was acting to correct those errant applications, including two errant filings for admission in a different Iowa case.

Dean Omar said it had fired the paralegal and instituted firmwide training to assure that the problems didn’t recur. The firm offered its apologies to Davidson.

The Iowa judge was not appeased. At a hearing last week, he accepted apologies from Dean, Trey Branham and Ethan Horn, the lawyers whose pro hac vice applications included inaccurate information. Davidson also agreed that the lawyers did not intend to deceive the court and said he appreciated the firm's remedial response. But the problem wasn't just a matter of process, he said. Dean Omar lawyers, the judge said, should be filling out and filing their own pro hac vice applications, not relying on paralegals.

“This is poor practice, It’s unacceptable practice. I think it’s unprofessional,” he said. “I’m so frustrated to get my head around why someone would draft something to the court or present something to the court that wasn’t their word.”

The judge said it was “just beyond belief” that the firm had to call a meeting to remind staff that when a lawyer’s name is affixed to a document, that had better mean that the lawyer has reviewed and approved the filing.

Davidson said he would allow Branham and Horn to appear in the case before him – but not Dean. “This cannot happen again,” he warned her. “And you’ve got to realize that if it ever did, you wouldn’t be practicing in this state or other states. I hope you appreciate where this puts you professionally.”

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Dean told me she was sincere when she told the Iowa judge she was grateful to Ford and Honeywell for forcing her firm to conduct an investigation that revealed the flaws in its pro hac vice process. After devoting “scores of hours” to reviewing the firm’s filings and retraining lawyers and staff, she said, she is confident the problem won’t recur.

She’s also hopeful, she said, that her apology and fulsome disclosures to Davis will limit the impact of the pro hac vice denials in Iowa and Connecticut when she applies for admission in other courts going forward. The firm has already sought to correct flawed applications in South Carolina, she said, in new filings at the state supreme court. “I think courts are mostly interested in you being transparent,” she said.

Dean said she believes Ford and Honeywell – frequent asbestos defendants – targeted her as a matter of strategy. “It’s very out of the ordinary for pro have vice applications to be disputed, especially in asbestos litigation,” she said. “It feels a little personal.... There’s definitely this effort to highlight to judges everything in my career (that defendants) find to be negative.”

The Ford and Honeywell lawyers who notified the Iowa judge of errors in Dean’s filing did not respond to my request for comment. But it’s a near certainty that asbestos defendants are going to be quoting the judges ruling in Dean Omar cases around the country.

That’s how a routine filing can become an extraordinary problem.

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