By Matt Ward
The law firm contracted by the county to defend indigent criminal suspects may agree to end its contract next week if commissioners agree to a plan designed by District Attorney Brian Kunzi that could save the county as much as $500,000 a year in legal bills.
Gibson & Kuehn’s three attorneys, who act as the county’s public defenders, would agree to end the $550,000 contract they have with the county and instead accept individual contracts. The move would help ease the burden placed on county finances by conflict attorneys — lawyers hired to defend indigent suspects when a conflict with the public defenders arose. In 2011, conflict attorneys cost the county more than $400,000 in addition to the $550,000 it was paying Gibson & Kuehn. That figure was projected earlier this year to rise to $700,000 if the county didn’t act.
Kunzi said Thursday that all the credit for the proposal goes to Harry Kuehn, Jason Earnest and Tom Gibson, who all agreed to the move in an effort to alleviate the county’s growing financial exposure.
“These guys realized the bind the county’s in. Here we had a situation where when one of them had a conflict, all three had a conflict. Now each of them will have a piece of the pie. We will have five to six attorneys on contract,” the district attorney said.
He added that the contracts will be divided among four attorneys, each taking 20 percent of the caseload, and likely two others, who will each get 10 percent. Kuehn, Gibson, Earnest and attorney Chris Arabia, who mostly works in northern Nye County, will likely get the 20 percent shares.
Kunzi said the contracts will be at a fixed, non-negotiable price.
He also said he prefers to award the lion’s share of the work to local attorneys.
“These guys are really stepping up to the plate to save the county money. We couldn’t have done this without their cooperation,” Kunzi said.
The county’s contract with Gibson & Kuehn doesn’t end for another 18 months. Kuehn said he and the other attorneys are merely being good citizens by making the deal. Earnest agreed.
“We’re doing the right thing,” he said.
Gibson said he believes the county will be able to avoid the bulk of its current conflict costs — and it will also impact some Las Vegas attorneys’ pocketbooks.
“It’s going to put a dent in a lot of people’s pocketbooks, people who have been taking advantage of that (conflict situation), not in a bad way, but just taking advantage,” he said.
Gibson said his workload should increase exponentially. As a partner in the firm now, his duties include being the office manager, taking only a few cases each year. He said he also often had to turn down cases when one party or another had even the remotest connection to Kuehn or Earnest.
“I’ve had a lot of cases I’ve had to turn down because Jason or Harry represented a guy four or five years ago on a DUI or something,” he said.
Gibson said he believes, depending on how commissioners vote, his firm will be dissolved by the end of the year and he and his partners will go their separate ways.
“As far as I’m concerned, the firm will remain intact until the end of the month,” he said.
He added that his split with Kuehn and Earnest, who isn’t technically a partner but an employee of the firm, will be amicable.
”This is not an unfriendly cut. Jason is the best employee I’ve ever had,” he said.
Still, rumors of internal strife inside the firm have not gone unnoticed.
A federal lawsuit filed in November 2010 by the firm’s malpractice insurer recently concluded that the firm and its two partners failed to notify it of a malpractice lawsuit filed against them by a prominent northern Nye County ranching family.
A judge agreed in October that Colony Insurance Company was not responsible for paying to defend the firm against a lawsuit brought by Susan Fallini.
Fallini filed suit against Kuehn and Gibson and their firm in August 2010 claiming the firm botched a civil case she hired them for in 2007 — a man named Michael David Adams was killed driving along a public road on Fallini’s ranchland when he struck a cow on July 8, 2005; his family sued Fallini for negligence.
After a few brief appearances, and assurances that the case would simply be dismissed, Fallini discovered nearly three years later that the case had not been dismissed at all, but that a summary judgment for $2.7 million had been entered by Judge Robert Lane — his reason for granting the judgment was that Kuehn had simply ignored order after order to show cause in the case, meaning the attorney was a repeated no-show at hearings. And no one bothered, judge included, to inform Fallini that she was being misrepresented until it was too late.
Fallini said by phone Thursday that the case is ongoing. Her husband, Joe, simply called the whole ordeal a “goddamned mess.”
Complicating the matter further is the fact that Lane made a crucial error in the original case — he allowed the case to continue even though Fallini’s ranchland is considered open range, where the livestock, not drivers on public roads, have the right of way.
Fallini told the Pahrump Valley Times that Kuehn, much like in her case, has failed to show up for any court hearings or depositions in the federal matter brought by Colony — and has allegedly been ordered to pay a $250 a day fine until he shows up for court.
A state bar complaint was filed against Kuehn by the Fallinis, and Gibson has declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy over the matter. The Nevada Supreme Court is involved in the messy affair today, but hasn’t ruled on whether the Fallinis are indeed at fault in the 2005 death, or if, as the law seems clear on, Adams struck an innocent cow.
The two attorneys at the heart of the case didn’t wish to address this legal quagmire Thursday and each refused to acknowledge that it might play some role in the decision to dissolve the law firm.
Kunzi said the issue played no role whatsoever in his decision making.
“This has nothing to do with that,” he said.