A four-day trial beginning Monday will determine whether Sheneen McClain, whose son died at the hands of Aurora police and paramedics, must pay $3 million to attorneys she fired.
Denver District Court Judge Ross Buchanan will decide the matter after hearing arguments and testimony this week. The trial could extend into a fifth day Friday if needed.
Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, died in August 2019, six days after he was arrested and injected with ketamine by paramedics. The case led to criminal charges, a lawsuit and a $15 million settlement between the City of Aurora and the McClains.
For most of the time Sheneen McClain and the McClain estate were suing the City of Aurora, they were represented by the Denver law firm Killmer Lane & Newman, known as KLN. Their agreement stated that KLN would receive 40 percent of any settlement or judgment.
But McClain fired KLN seven months before the $15 million settlement was reached last year and has declined to pay the firm. McClain fired KLN because she believed its lawyers placed their own publicity and self-aggrandizement above her best interests.
In May of this year, after receiving a bill from KLN, McClain sued her former lawyers and asked Buchanan to rule that she owes them nothing. McClain’s lawsuit claimed the bill from KLN was for $3.9 million; KLN, which countersued, has since said that it is asking for $3.1 million.
“KLN’s wrongful conduct warrants the forfeiture of any attorney fees from Sheneen McClain,” her current lawyer, Daniel Wartell, wrote in a court filing Oct. 18.
KLN believes it is owed 32 percent of McClain’s slice of the settlement (Elijah’s father received a separate, smaller portion) and another firm is owed 8 percent for representing McClain after KLN. KLN says it spent 4,748 hours working on the McClain case over 16 months.
“It is indisputable that KLN’s years of hard work on this case and stellar reputation were critical to the outstanding result achieved, and KLN deserves to be compensated for its work,” wrote the firm’s lawyer, Michael McConnell, on Oct. 17.
A third law firm, Rathod Mohamedbhai, is also a party in the case. That is the firm KLN believes should receive 8 percent of McClain’s settlement as part of an 80-20 agreement KLN had with RM. KLN has accused RM of violating their agreement; RM denies that.
The case could hinge on whether the judge finds that KLN was fired by McClain “for cause” — because of mistakes or wrongdoing — or “without cause.” Law firms often forfeit their right to a fee when they are fired for cause but not when fired without cause.
Buchanan must also settle a much smaller dispute: whether KLN was right to take 40 percent of a $350,000 settlement between the McClain estate and an ambulance company in mid-2020. McClain’s attorneys allege KLN did not have a written fee agreement with McClain and therefore didn’t deserve the money; KLN claims there was an agreement in place.