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Tobacco Litigator Seeks to Bring Attorney-Fee Dispute From Texas to Florida

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A defendant in a Texas case over two Florida attorneys’ fee-sharing agreement has argued that the Harris County court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the dispute.

In the case, Tallahassee litigator Phillip T. Howard and his firm sued J.B. Harris of Coral Gables, Florida, and his firm over a fee-sharing agreement for a portfolio of potentially lucrative tobacco cases. The same parties have pending litigation in Florida over the agreement.

“Howard wants a court in Texas to step into the shoes of a Florida court to pursue jurisdiction over a Florida contingent fee contract involving tobacco cases that can only be filed in Florida on behalf of Florida residents and nowhere else,” Harris said. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”

Howard and Harris first entered their agreement in 2017. In April 2018, a litigation investment fund called Virage Capital Management entered a settlement agreement with Howard and Harris. The Howard v. Harris petition said this agreement stated Howard would no longer have to pay advance case expenses, and Harris would get 60 percent of fees while Howard would get 40 percent, and Virage would have a lien on Howard’s 40 percent share. When Harris reached a multimillion-dollar verdict on one case in February, Howard alleged he “concocted a bizarre interpretation” of the fee-sharing agreement, and it seemed he didn’t intend to abide by the contract.

On April 2, Virage, which is based in Houston, petitioned the Harris County court to intervene in the case. Virage claimed it lent $302,000 to the defendants over the past 12 months, in exchange for Virage to get its lien on Howard’s share of the tobacco case fees. Virage asked the court to uphold the agreement.

Harris, defending himself pro se, filed motions in the case Tuesday. Howard has no connection to Texas, except for a “forum-selection clause” in the parties’ fee-sharing settlement agreement, which Virage’s lawyers drafted. Harris argued that the earlier fee-sharing agreement between Howard and Harris, which didn’t include Virage, said that any dispute would go to arbitration in Florida. The underlying fee agreement dealt with tobacco cases in Florida, and none of them has anything to do with Texas, the motion said. Harris argued that Florida courts have exclusive jurisdiction over the law of Florida contingent fee contracts.

In the 53-page filing, Harris also asked the court to stay the lawsuit “pending disbarment or indictment and conviction” of Howard. The motion said Howard faces a disbarment proceeding in Florida for 15 counts of alleged professional misconduct. He’s under criminal investigation with the Securities and Exchange Commission and could be indicted for “illegal operations of a hedge fund known as Cambridge Capital Group” that bilked pension funds of retired professional football players who suffered brain injury, claimed the motion.

Harris alleged that Howard’s lawyers didn’t conduct due diligence and filed a frivolous lawsuit, and asked the court to award Harris and his firm their attorney fees as a sanction.

Howard’s lawyer, Ashish Mahendru of Mahendru P.C. in Houston, didn’t return an email or call seeking comment before deadline.

Virage’s lawyer, Susman Godfrey partner Geoffrey Harrison of Houston, said that Harris’ filings were not directed at Virage, and declined to comment further.

 

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