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A Texas-based law firm is facing accusations that it paid third parties, including funeral homes, to recruit clients in wrongful death lawsuits in New Mexico and Texas – allegations that could violate both criminal law and ethical guidelines for attorneys.
Complaints have been filed against Cesar Ornelas Law of San Antonio, Texas, with the State Bar disciplinary boards in both states, and a civil lawsuit accusing the law firm of “barratry” (sometimes referred to as ambulance chasing) is pending in state court in El Paso.
Cesar Ornelas, who founded Cesar Ornelas Law, denied the allegations in a telephone interview with the Journal, calling them “baseless” and said a competing law firm was behind the complaints.
The Ornelas firm, according to court records, has represented clients from Española, Santa Fe, Hobbs and Las Cruces.
Funeral home directors in Alamogordo and southeastern New Mexico told the Journal they had been approached about referring clients in “traumatic death” cases to the Cesar Ornelas Law in return for a percentage of any money received for representing the client.
Ornelas chalked up those comments to a misunderstanding by the funeral directors of a plan his father had developed to help families in Mexico who had lost loved ones in work-related or traffic accidents in the United States.
The Ornelas law firm has offices in San Antonio, El Paso, Midland/Odessa, Laredo and Carlsbad. At one time, it advertised an office in Albuquerque.
Paying non-lawyer third parties – such as funeral directors – to recruit clients is against the law in Texas and New Mexico, and the practice is prohibited by the State Bar Association in both states.
Ornelas says that never happened and blames the allegations on a competing personal injury law firm, Glasheen, Valles and Inderman, also based in Texas with New Mexico offices, including in Albuquerque.
“My competitors feel threatened by a young Hispanic law firm,” Ornelas said. “They are waging all out war on us.”
“As soon as I put up billboards, these relentless attacks began,” he said. “Glasheen law is trying to monopolize (personal injury law) in West Texas and Southeastern New Mexico.”
Kevin Glasheen said his firm is often contacted by families who have lost a loved one and that “several clients told us that a funeral director had tried to refer them to Ornelas. This happened at many different funeral homes across New Mexico and West Texas. We investigated, discovered the kickback scheme and reported it to the State Bar.”
Glasheen said his firm has helped clients file complaints with the attorney disciplinary committees in both states, and the firm’s website has an online form in which people can report similar issues.
State Bar disciplinary boards in both states declined comment and said they can’t confirm whether complaints had been filed.
In New Mexico civil lawsuits, the Ornelas firm typically refers cases to law firms with attorneys licensed to practice in New Mexico for a share of the attorney fees and pursuant to a contract signed with the clients. One of the attorneys in the Ornelas firm is licensed to practice in New Mexico.
The law and disciplinary rules prohibiting attorneys from paying someone to recruit clients are seldom enforced.
That changed to some extent in Texas when the Legislature passed a statute in 2011 that allowed victims of “barratry” – improper legal solicitation – to file civil lawsuits in which they could be awarded $10,000 and attorney fees if they prevailed.
David Kassab, a legal malpractice attorney in Houston, said that, since that law was enacted, barratry claims have come to light throughout the state.
“This conduct is outlawed by the state, and attorneys shouldn’t do it,” Kassab said.
Kassab’s law firm is taking over representation of alleged victims in the El Paso lawsuit filed against the Ornelas Law Firm and other defendants who are accused of being actively involved in an intricate criminal, fraudulent and civil conspiracy to commit the crime of barratry.
Ornelas told the Journal his firm doesn’t employ non-attorney “case runners” or hire third-party marketers to recruit clients.
The Ornelas firm has denied the allegations in the El Paso case – scheduled for trial in the spring of 2020 – and is seeking to have it dismissed.
Ornelas doesn’t deny there was contact with a victim’s family, but said there was nothing improper.
“There is no dispute that our office manager was invited to the home by the common-law wife of the victim who asked about legal representation,” Ornelas said. “That is not barratry. The case is totally frivolous.”
The barratry claim stems from the death of Hector Soto Jr., 23, of El Paso, in a traffic accident in southwest Texas.
Within 24 hours of the fatal accident, the lawsuit alleges Soto’s family was approached by one of the defendants – the person Ornelas described as the El Paso office manager – who asked them to sign what they thought was a contract that dealt with their son’s funeral expenses.
But the lawsuit claims the parents – who don’t speak or read English – actually signed a legal services agreement and were given a card with Cesar Ornelas’s law firm telephone number.
The lawsuit alleges the funeral home operator subsequently told the parents that everything was taken care of and they would not have to pay fees as long as the services of Cesar Ornelas had been agreed upon.
Funeral home ethic
Ornelas said his firm never recruited funeral homes to refer clients to the firm.
He said his father started a company to help Mexican nationals get funeral expenses paid in traumatic death cases but that company had nothing to do with his firm.
“There’s no relation to the law firm, other than he’s my dad,” Ornelas said. “It didn’t recruit funeral homes to send this firm clients.”
Ornelas’ father is a funeral home director in Texas.
Two funeral directors told the Journal they had a different impression when they were approached by the elder Ornelas at an annual function for the funeral directors association.
The regional manager for the Legacy Funeral Group in Southwest Texas and Southeastern New Mexico, Bill Vallie, who oversees 15 funeral homes in Texas and New Mexico, said in a telephone interview that he was approached by Ornelas’ father about referring cases to his son’s law firm for a fee.
“I told him that was unethical and we couldn’t do anything like that,” he said. “It struck me as unethical and possibly illegal.”
Kent House owns the Alamogordo Funeral Home.
In a telephone interview, he recalled first hearing about the overtures from the Ornelas law firm at the annual funeral directors association convention in Albuquerque last year.
House said he was talking to Cesar Ornelas, Sr., at the convention’s opening cocktail hour.
During their discussion, he said the elder Ornelas began talking about funeral directors getting paid to refer cases to his son’s law firm.
“Then he said something to the effect that it is legal,” House said.
House, however, told the Journal he did not think that arrangement would be proper.
“No funeral director should be doing something like that,” he said.
Vallie said his funeral homes have handled numerous trauma deaths over the years. “The road from Pecos (Texas) to Carlsbad (N.M.) has a lot of fatalities that we have handled, plus the oil field accidents, so we’re no strangers to dealing with traumatic deaths. The family has just suffered a terrible loss. I shouldn’t be referring them to an attorney.”
Cesar Ornelas of Cesar Ornelas Law dismissed the allegations by Vallie and House.
He said his competitors have found allies in the funeral industry to continue “to wage war” against his firm.
Law firms, under certain circumstances, can pay for funeral services for members of clients’ families in both Texas and New Mexico.
In Texas, the law firm, after it is retained, can loan the client money to be paid from any settlement. In New Mexico, the funeral home files a “letter of protection,” essentially a lien with the law firm against the settlement the surviving family members receive.When it comes to barratry, New Mexico State Bar rules say: “A lawyer shall not give anything of value or otherwise provide a benefit to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services, except that a lawyer may pay the reasonable cost of the advertising or the reasonable cost of preparing the communication which is permitted by this rule and may pay the usual charges for a not-for-profit lawyer referral service or other legal service organization.”Under New Mexico criminal statutes one aspect of “barratry” is “any attorney-at-law seeking or obtaining employment in any suit, by giving to the person from whom the employment is sought anything of value or directly or indirectly paying the debts or liabilities of the person from whom such employment is sought or loaning or promising to give or otherwise grant anything of value to the person from whom such employment is sought before such employment in order to induce such employment.”Whoever commits barratry in New Mexico is guilty of a misdemeanor.