As Sheneen McClain looked on Monday, attorneys in downtown Denver debated whether she must pay millions of dollars from her son’s wrongful death settlement with the City of Aurora to the local civil rights law firm that she fired before the settlement was signed.
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 Aurora and the McClain family.
The question before Denver District Court Judge Ross Buchanan is whether the firm Killmer Lane & Newman deserves $3.1 million of that settlement under a 40 percent fee agreement between it and Sheneen McClain. McClain believes KLN is not entitled to be paid for its work because she fired it for wrongdoing. A four-day trial began Monday.
In his opening statement, McClain attorney Dan Wartell argued that local civil rights attorney Mari Newman and her firm, KLN, ignored McClain’s wishes and even worked against her at times. KLN represented McClain, as well as Elijah’s absentee father, LaWayne Mosley, for most of the two years that their federal case against the City of Aurora was ongoing.
“She doesn’t have a problem paying lawyers,” Wartell said of McClain. “She has a problem with a law firm and a lawyer who promised to represent her during the worst time in her life and let her down.”
Wartell claimed that Newman wanted a 50-50 split of the $15 million settlement between McClain and Mosley, which would have been unfair since Mosley played little role in Elijah’s upbringing. Only after McClain fired KLN and hired a different law firm did her new attorneys file a motion to split the settlement 65-35. That is how the settlement was ultimately split.
McClain sat with her lawyers throughout the first day of trial. She wore a white T-shirt that read, “I am owed much more than a public apology from Mari Newman for violating my rights!”
Wartell claimed McClain fired KLN because “Ms. Newman was not listening to her and Ms. Newman was constantly in the press and that was not done to advance justice for Elijah.”
He said McClain was especially insulted that KLN arranged an interview between Mosley and the Denver Post in which Mosley claimed that his son loved professional sports, namely football and basketball. In reality, “Elijah hated sports,” Wartell said.
After Wartell sat down, Michael McConnell, an attorney for KLN, praised his client’s work on the McClain case. He referred to KLN as the top civil rights firm in Colorado and one of the best in America, calling their legal maneuvering “state of the art and nose to the grindstone.”
“KLN lawyers worked day and night. (Newman) spoke on the phone daily, almost, with Sheneen McClain. There are hundreds of emails between them. The notion that Mari Newman abandoned Sheneen McClain is absolutely false,” McConnell said in his opening statement.
McConnell claimed that KLN worked about 4,800 hours on the McClain case and its case file is more than 500,000 pages. He called Wartell’s opening statement a “complicated criticism all intended to deprive KLN of the fee it deserves. The fee that Ms. McClain agreed to and the fee that is an industry standard.”
As for claims that KLN ignored a conflict of interest by representing both McClain and Mosley, McConnell said of Mosley, “He’s still Elijah’s father, like it or not. He’s still Elijah’s heir under Colorado law, like it or not.”
“The goal of the civil rights case was to hold Elijah’s killers accountable. KLN’s work, along with their unquestioned expertise, put a spotlight on that accountability and that spotlight is what made the $15 million settlement happen,” McConnell said.
Newman was the first witness in the trial and testified for five hours. She was called by Wartell, who pressed her on why she represented both McClain and Mosley when their interests may not have been identical. Newman defended her work on behalf of both clients and said probate lawyers for the two, not her, were responsible for splitting the settlement.
“There was not a conflict of interest in this case,” Newman said.
She defended her decision to elevate Mosley in the press and denied claims she inaccurately portrayed his role in Elijah’s life. Newman said she was trying to avoid the appearance of discord between McClain and Mosley, which could have harmed their case.