Appearances can be deceiving, but sometimes they are exactly what they look to be. So it is with a Washington, D.C., personal injury law firm whose emissaries comb the country seeking new business opportunities with state attorneys general after presenting them with a rationale for suing in-state businesses.
This is not a business strategy that follows specific events and conveys a “let us help you solve your problem” message. Rather, these trial attorneys convince the state that a problem exists and then offer their firm’s services to help solve it — for a cool 20 percent of the settlement amount awarded.
From Pennsylvania to Nevada and now New Mexico, attorneys from Cohen Milstein law firm are blanketing the United States, soliciting meetings with attorneys general, contributing to their campaigns and persuading the state’s highest law enforcer to sue in-state businesses and industries. One of their favorite targets for lawsuits is skilled nursing facilities providing long-term care to elderly with dementia and other chronic illnesses.
This disturbing trend was recently exposed in a New York Times story (“Lawyers create big paydays by coaxing attorneys general to sue,” Dec. 18, 2014), which reported this emerging practice of a former attorney general and her law firm. This article singled out New Mexico’s then-Attorney General Gary King, who met with the Cohen Milstein attorney and authorized the lawsuit.
According to the Times, King was urged by the trial attorney to sue the owner of a nursing home in rural New Mexico that Mr. King “had never heard of” and the attorney “had never even set foot in.” She later presented him with a proposed lawsuit that did not cite any specific complaints but rather provided a skewed methodology on staffing ratios in skilled nursing facilities.
Interestingly, New Mexico law requires staffing ratios for nursing homes. If facilities do not comply, they will be cited by the state Health Department — a taxpayer-funded agency that does not require the assistance of Washington, D.C. trial lawyers — yet the lawsuit continues.
In addition to the legal services they offer, the attorneys at Cohen Milstein are also generous with their financial support of current and potential attorneys general. Public campaign disclosures reveal that the firm has contributed a total $19,000 to New Mexico elected officials who were and are involved in the decision to proceed with the lawsuit.
Some states are acting quickly to stop this unsavory and predatory practice. This year, Nevada’s state legislature went as far as to pass a bill to limit the contract amount for out of state attorneys after Cohen Milstein brought their road show to the Silver State. Harold Kim, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform commented on May 15 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “While reasonable people can disagree about the propriety of using outside counsel … you don’t need to be an attorney to wonder whether the money donated to [former Attorney General Catherine Cortez] Masto’s 2010 re-election campaign by six partners of Cohen Milstein wasn’t part of some kind of pay-to-play arrangement.”
These kinds of political tactics have no place in New Mexico.
The best use of New Mexico’s taxpayer dollars isn’t to cull millions of dollars from a lawsuit against nursing homes, enrich trial attorneys and provide affirmation for a questionable and potentially dangerous business practice.
Elevating the quality of care for New Mexico’s elderly is an ongoing process and public policy that actually facilitates providers’ ability to hire staff and advance care strategies will support the mission we all share:Taking care of those who took care of us.
Sechovec is the executive director of the New Mexico Health Care Association in Albuquerque.