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Houston Lawyers Accused of Running a 'Barratry Pyramid Scheme'

Texas Lawyer, June 14, 2017

By: Brenda Sapino Jeffreys

A Texas truck driver sued Houston plaintiff's lawyers Jimmy Williamson and Cyndi Rusnak, their firm and the Law Offices of Michael Pohl, alleging they formed a "barratry joint venture" to operate a "barratry pyramid scheme" to solicit clients to sue BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Plaintiff Dezzie Brumfield alleges in a petition filed June 8 in the 189th District Court in Harris County that the joint venture paid about $5 million in "barratry pass-through money" to consultants who in turn paid case runners to unlawfully solicit clients "in what can only be described as a barratry pyramid scheme." Over a few months in 2012, Brumfield alleges, the joint venture had "improperly solicited as many as ten thousand potential clients who would sue British Petroleum over the oil spill," but the venture later terminated many of them as clients.

Brumfield alleges he received an unsolicited call in 2012 from a case runner who told him he was guaranteed $50,000 if he would hire Williamson, Rusnak and Pohl to file a claim for him against BP. Brumfield alleges he sent Williamson & Rusnak his claim paperwork, and he continued to provide information from 2012 to 2015, but the firm ended that representation in August 2015, just three weeks before a deadline to file a claim against BP.

Brumfield, seeking more than $550,000 in damages, alleges he "not only suffered economic losses due to the solicitation, but also endured mental anguish."

Williamson and Rusnak did not immediately return telephone messages left at Williamson & Rusnak. Michael Pohl, a solo practitioner at the Law Offices of Michael Pohl, also did not return a message seeking a comment on the allegations in Brumfield v. Williamson.

Brumfield's allegations in the civil barratry suit describe a case-running operation aimed at securing clients with claims against BP stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"This was a whole Ponzi scheme," said plaintiff's lawyer Lance Kassab, of Kassab Law Firm of Houston.

In 2012, Brumfield alleges, Williamson "concocted an illicit barratry scheme to exploit the disaster for his own benefit" and engaged Rusnak, his partner in Williamson & Rusnak, to help accomplish it. The truck driver alleges the lawyers also hired Pohl of the Law Office of Michael Pohl to assist with the "unethical and illegal" client solicitation.

According to the petition, 40 percent of attorney's fees from the BP clients would go to Pohl, and Williams and Rusnak would split the other 60 percent.

In May 2012, according to the petition, the Williamson-Pohl-Rusnak joint venture came to an agreement with several Gulf Coast case runners and consultants that called for Pohl to pay them and their companies 30 percent of his 40 percent share in the joint venture's attorney's fees from the BP litigation. A subsequent operating agreement signed in July 15 gave three consultants 22.5 percent of Pohl's share of the attorney fees.

Brumfield alleges the Williamson-Pohl-Rusnak joint venture paid about $5 million in barratry pass-through money to the consultants who had signed agreements with the joint venture.

Brumfield alleges that the marketers and their companies would receive $1,000 per potential client, "mid-level runners" they recruited would receive $100 to $200 of that money, and "low-level runners" would get $20 to $30.

"At the top of the barratry pyramid were Williamson, Pohl and Rusnak, who would direct the solicitation efforts and instructed the workers … to make cold calls on potential clients," he alleges in the petition.

Brumfield alleges that by the end of 2012, the lawyers through the solicitation scheme had improperly solicited as many as 10,000 potential BP clients, and Williamson and Rusnak became "overwhelmed" and wanted to stop the operation, but Pohl continued to fund and direct it and asked the runners to send new potential clients to him alone.