Judge declines to play shell game with funds from Provost Umphrey Tobacco Partnership

David Yates Nov. 17, 2009, 8:00am

Brent Coon

The battle between the Provost Umphrey law firm and former associate Brent Coon over attorney's fees from a multi-billion dollar tobacco settlement has outgrown its current arena and spilled over into another Jefferson County courtroom.

On Monday, Nov. 16, a hearing on whether the Provost Umphrey Tobacco Partnership (PUT) should be allowed to intervene and deposit tobacco funds into a case over attorney's fees in an asbestos lawsuit was held in Judge Milton Shuffield's 136th District Court.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Shuffield denied PUT's plea in intervention and said he would wait to rule on whether or not PUT can deposit funds in the court's registry.

Over the past two years, the Record has reported on the struggle between Coon and Walter Umphrey, two of Texas' most influential plaintiff's lawyers, and their legal war over millions in attorney's fees stemming from the state's mega-billion dollar tobacco settlement.

Coon and Umphrey are fighting out that case in Judge Bob Wortham's 58th District Court. It has recently grinded to a standstill because higher courts have been petitioned to clear up questions about arbitration.

Instead of waiting for a final judgment, on Oct. 22 PUT filed a plea in intervention and petition in interpleader in Judge Shuffield's court – depositing $373,863 into the registry of the court.

Petition in interpleader is a form of action originally developed under equity jurisprudence. It allows a plaintiff to initiate a lawsuit in order to compel two or more other parties to litigate a dispute. An interpleader action originates when the plaintiff holds property on behalf of another, but does not know to whom the property should be transferred.

Judge Shuffield is not in any way presiding over the tobacco fee dispute but is, subsequently, litigating a dispute between Umphrey and Coon over attorney's fees in unrelated asbestos litigation.

In response to PUT's petition, Janet Coon, Brent Coon's ex-wife, filed motions to strike PUT's plea in intervention and to dismiss the partnership's petition in interpleader – arguing that PUT has "no justiciable interest" in the asbestos case.

By decree of divorce, Janet Coon has one-half interest in quarterly tobacco payments awarded to the Coon estate, court papers say.

"PUT has no justiciable interest in this case," Janet's motion to strike states. "It does not seek any relief. Intervention will unduly complicate the issue in this case ... and intervention is inappropriately being used as a vehicle to fashion a prejudgment remedy to which the intended beneficiary, the Provost Umphrey law firm, is not entitled."

Janet Coon's motion to dismiss PUT's petition in interpleader further argues that the Provost Umphrey law firm is "not a judgment creditor" in this case and "has no claim or lien against the specific funds which have been deposited."

During the hearing, Janet Coon's attorney, Keith Kebodeaux, said PUT is prematurely depositing the funds so it can reserve restrictions to the funds.

In its petition, PUT says it is "ready to deposit with court $373,863, which represents the entire tobacco proceeds originally to be paid under protest and reservation of rights to Brent Coon PC, for the third quarter of 2009."

Although Shuffield denied PUT's plea in intervention, he said he would wait to see how Judge Wortham reacts to the issue at hand before ruling on Janet's motion to dismiss PUT's petition in interpleader.

PUT was represented in part by Orgain, Bell & Tucker attorney Gary Reger, and attorney Bryan Blevins, a senior Provost Umphrey partner.

Case No. 176-633

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