Frivolous Conflicted Representation. Where Else but Harris County?

From Social Services for Feral Children comes this story, which the Houston Chronicle seems to have flat-out missed.

Follow along here:

Elizabeth Shelton has a car crash. She rear-ends Lance Bennett (no relation AFAIK; I have a cousin Lance who went to LSU, but I don’t think he’s a truck driver). Her boyfriend, Matthew McNeice (the Chronicle renders it McNiece, but the District Clerk’s civil records have McNeice), is killed in the crash. Elizabeth’s SUV is destroyed.

Elizabeth is prosecuted for intoxication manslaughter. She is convicted. That is, a jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that she caused McNeice’s death by reason of her intoxication.

Almost two years after the accident, Elizabeth sues Lance for the damage he did to her truck (and her manicure — oh. mah. god.) when she rear-ended him while intoxicated, causing McNeice’s death.

This is the sort of thing that has the tort reformers slavering — SSFC schools us Texas lawyers on negligence and contrib — and that’s where the Houston Chronicle’s reportage seems to end.

But SSFC, one of my new blogospheric favorites, didn’t stop there. For some reason he looked up the case in the Harris County District Clerk’s records (hey, I didn’t even know that search page existed!). Here’s what he found:

Mark T. Sandoval, the lawyer for Elizabeth Marie Shelton (the woman who, already convicted of causing Matthew McNeice’s death by reason of her intoxication, is suing the man whose truck she hit) is also the lawyer for Barbara Chapman and Sid McNeice.

Who are Barbara Chapman and Sid McNeice? Representatives of the Estate of Matthew McNeice, the young man who was killed while “hanging out the window” of the drunk woman’s truck, “and yelling joyfully“, who is also suing the truck driver. Of course.

You would expect that the family of the man who Elizabeth killed might sue Elizabeth for killing him. It’s a laydown case since Elizabeth has been convicted of killing him.

Maybe that case has already been settled, and all of the accessible assets have been squeezed out of Elizabeth. But you would also expect the lawyer deciding when to stop squeezing not to be concerned about the interests of the squeezee — a jillion-dollar judgment that will follow Elizabeth around (in case she hits the lottery or makes something of her life) along with the cash from her insurance policy might be better than just the cash.

So it’s strange that Sandoval, who as the lawyer for McNeice’s estate was responsible for suing Shelton, is representing both the estate and Shelton. Not to belabor the point, but he’s representing both the young man killed and the young woman already held legally responsible for snuffing out his life.

Doubly strange, Sandoval, as of April, had “also represented Shelton’s wife in a lawsuit related to a fatal car crash involving their daughter, who was convicted of intoxicated manslaughter late last year.” In cause number 2007-13580 Sandoval sued Lance Bennett on behalf of Shelton’s mother, Julia Rogers, alleging that on October 23, 2006 Bennett collided not with Shelton but with Rogers in an auto accident)

That’s not generally the way we Texas lawyers roll. We actually know about conflicts of interest, and most of us don’t go around filing blatantly frivolous lawsuits against people.

But there are three things you have to know about Mark Sandoval.

First, he spent the three years from September 26, 1997 to September 26, 2000 suspended from the practice of law for conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation, and the period from March 27, 1998 to March 26, 1999 doubly suspended from the practice of law (I couldn’t find an announcement in the Texas Bar Journal explaining why, possibly because he was already suspended at the time).

Believe it or not, it’s not easy for a Texas lawyer to get himself suspended; Sandoval had already been publicly reprimanded twice, on February 22, 1995 (for charging an illegal or unconscionable fee, and for failing to protect a client’s interests on termination of representation) and on May 9, 1996 (for a laundry list of disciplinary violations).

Second, he takes appointments in Harris County juvenile cases. The appointed juvenile defense bar is not representative (to put it gently) of the Texas bar, the Harris County bar, or the Harris County defense bar as a whole. To put it less gently, the quality of representation that indigent kids accused of crimes get in Harris County is shameful.

Third — and I think this ties all the threads together neatly — Sandoval is appointed to juvenile cases almost exclusively by Harris County Juvenile Court Judge Pat Shelton — the father of Elizabeth Shelton.

[Update 12/18: More on Mark Sandoval.]

0 responses to “Frivolous Conflicted Representation. Where Else but Harris County?”

  1. It seems to me that a counter-suit from Mr. Bennett might get a lot further than the Shelton suit. I watched some of that case, and if I recall correctly, Mr. Bennett tried to help Elizabeth Shelton and Matthew McNeice after the accident. His involvement in causing the accident was ruled out during the criminal trial. After the initial impact, he had to get off the freeway and come all the way back to assist them.
    Also, if I recall correctly, isn’t Mark Sandoval a fact witness to that case? Something about the “black box” that had been in Elizabeth Shelton’s vehicle . . .

  2. Judge Pat Shelton and Mark Sandoval should have their licenses taken away and should not be practicing law. This is a disgrace to all lawyers and judges who practice law.

  3. What gov.ageny would i send this to , as my part in protesting outrageous lawsuits and , to me, obvious conflict of interest and possible ethics violations and/or illegal activities?

  4. AHCL, I’ll look at the fact witness issue. Or you could join in the conversation at your blog.

    Lucas and Wayne, the State Bar of Texas might be interested.

    Jason, if you and I often don’t see eye to eye, it’s only because you are often wrong. Don’t take it too hard, there’s a lot of it going around.


  5. Great post. I’d be interested to know what sort of chance you think they actually have in court (hopefully none whatsoever; “frivolous” is an understatement), and what sort of action the community as a whole should take against this style of “lawyering.”

    It’s clear the suit is rotten to the core, but what I wonder is what should be done about it.

    • AC, I’m a criminal defense lawyer, not a civil lawyer, but I’d guess the suit has got no chance. I don’t even know whether the filing of suit by Shelton extends the defendants’ time to file a countersuit.

  6. Mark, yes, CPRC 16.069 allows counterclaims to be brought within 30 days of the date the answer is due without regard to the statute of limitations if the counterclaim arises out of the same transaction. Of course, limitations is not an issue if seeking sanctions under CPRC 10.001. McCally might actually grant a sanctions motion given the facts in this case. If there’s any case that deserved it, this one probably does. All I can say is I would love to be a fly on the wall in that deposition: “Is there be any reason why your memory of the evening in question might be impaired, Miss Shelton?”

  7. It would be a close race for the craziest person who shouldn’t be holding public office between Shelton and Lykos.

    Actually 2 out of the 3 juvenile court judges are pretty much crazy.

    It’s a sad state of affairs.

  8. Well done, Mark. As you know I’m a big fan of self-policing among lawyers and this kind of shameful conduct deserves to be publicized widely and loudly.

  9. My son (16 yrs) is following this story very closely since I happened across it recently online consequently, I watch for updates. We ran across a story about Eliz Shelton requesting that she be able to server her time (4 months— really only 4 months?!?) during holidays and weekends with a decision coming down from the courts during this holiday break. We can’t find any reference to how that came out. Does anyone know what the judge ruled and why the sentence was so light in the first place?

    • Gregan,

      The four months is not her sentence. Her sentence was 10 years in prison. The jury recommended that this sentence be probated. The judge probated the sentence and set conditions of probation. There is a mandatory jail term on an intoxicated manslaughter condition, so one of the conditions of probation was that Shelton spend four months in Harris County Jail beginning December 20, 2007. I can’t tell that she has done so, but I’d be surprised if she hadn’t.

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