Provost Umphrey claims banana picker reps siphoned clients, money

David Yates Jul. 1, 2010, 7:47am

In 2001, the Provost Umphrey law firm hired two men, Rob Roberts and David Rossi, to manage thousands of Central American banana pickers who allegedly became sterile after repeated exposure to pesticides.

Nine years later, the Beaumont-based law firm claims Roberts and Rossi have been busy siphoning money and clients away from PU attorneys, according to a lawsuit filed June 24 in Jefferson County District Court.

The suit alleges Roberts and Rossi are taking advantage of their "uneducated and trusting clients" by having them unwittingly hand over power of attorney.

According to the complaint, in 2001 Provost Umphrey was referred thousands of banana-worker cases from Charles Musslewhite. The first cases were from Nicaraguan workers, and later included cases from Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala.

On referral, Musslewhite recommended the firm hire a foreign administrator, Robert M. Roberts.

A fee sharing agreement was executed in Beaumont, and Roberts agreed to act as an independent administrator over Provost Umprhey's banana-worker cases.

"While negotiating the agreement in Beaumont, Defendant Roberts committed several acts of omission and/or commission related to the scope of his work, his qualifications, his ability to maintain client confidentialities and his ability to maintain a fiduciary relationship with clients and avoid placing his own financial interests above the clients' interests or Plaintiff's," the suit states.

After executing a contract, Roberts hired Rossi "to assist in communications, disbursements, and handling of significant sums of monies (PU) provided solely for the pursuit of the banana-worker cases," court papers say.

"Ultimately, both defendants ... mishandled (PU's) funds for their own benefit," the suit states. "Specifically, Roberts is now having clients sign blank 'powers of attorneys' purporting to invest himself with attorney powers he does not possess."

As soon as they collect signatures from PU's clients, Roberts and Rossi immediately complete the "blank" documents, the firm alleges.

"This conduct is actively interfering with (PU's) ability to work up these cases," the suit states. "Indeed, the situation is even more dire in the Honduran cases as those cases are actively in litigation in Los Angeles, Calif., with deadlines and hearings occurring in the next few weeks."

Recently, Roberts informed the law firm that he had communicated directly with Dole attorneys and was flying to Los Angeles to "settle" the cases, court papers say.

Provost Umphrey represents thousands of banana workers throughout Central America, including Honduras, who were allegedly exposed to a nematicide.

The nematicide, a type of chemical pesticide used to kill parasitic nematodes, was banned in the U. S. since 1977 but allegedly used by Dole in its banana plantations in Nicaragua and other foreign countries, court papers say.

Even though the law firm's other banana worker suits were transferred, PU argues jurisdiction and venue belong in Jefferson County because the fee agreement was signed in Beaumont, Roberts visited the firm's Beaumont location and routinely e-mailed the office.

In addition to punitive, exemplary and treble damages, PU is seeking a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction to halt Roberts and Rossi from commandeering its clients.

PU attorneys Joe Fisher and Mark Sparks are handling the case.

Judge Donald Floyd, 172nd District Court, has been assigned to the case.

Case No. E187-133

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