Ernestine Elliott
vs.
Willie E. Gary et al
(Legal Malpractice, Fraud, Conversion, Theft, Bad Faith)


IN THE SUPERIOR COURT OF FULTON COUNTY STATE OF GEORGIA

Civil Action File No. 2019CV328802 Date Filed: 10/31/19

ERNESTINE ELLIOTT, individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of KATRINA M. COOK, Plaintiff
-against -
GARY, WILLIAMS, PARENTI, WATSON AND GARY, P.L.L.C.; FOREST B. JOHNSON AND ASSOCIATES, WILLIE E. GARY, CHANTHINA B. ABNEY, LERONNIE MASON and RENEE Y. TUCKER, Defendants

This is a civil action for legal malpractice, fraud, conversion, civil theft, and bad faith to recover compensatory and punitive damages arising from Defendants representation of Ms. Elliott in wrongful death claims related to a March 10, 2014 automobile accident in which Ms. Elliott's daughter, Katrina M. Cook, was killed.

In particular, Defendants failed to bring two meritorious wrongful death claims on behalf of Ms. Cook's estate in a timely manner: (i) a products liability claim against the manufacturer of the car Ms. Cook was driving, a 2005 Nissan Infiniti, before the expiration of the statute of repose and the statute of limitations; and (ii) a personal injury action against the owner and driver of a Freightliner tractor-trailer responsible for the accident, Schneider National Carrier, Inc. ("Schneider National") and its employee-driver.

In addition, Defendants Gary Firm and Willie Gary willfully converted a check for $100,000 payable to Ms. Elliott in her individual capacity, forged her signature to cash that check, retained the entire $100,000 for almost two years, and have retained over $50,000 to date. Ms. Cook's automobile insurer issued the check as a death benefit under the policy's uninsured motorist insurance policy, which had nothing to do with the scope of Defendants' retention. The Gary Defendants fraudulently induced Ms. Elliott to instruct the insurer to send the check to them, forged Ms. Elliott's signature as an endorsement of the check, and then fraudulently misrepresented that the funds were proceeds of a wrongful death settlement.

Read Complaint filed 10/31/19

Indefensible Legal Malpractice by Willie E. Gary and His Law Firm
Should Result in Gary's Disbarment and Possible Imprisonment
by Ray Rogers, Director, Corporate Campaign, Inc.

On March 10, 2014, America and the family of Ernestine and Robert Elliott suffered a terrible loss when their 36-year old daughter, Katrina Cook, a disabled Air Force veteran, perished in a horrific, fiery crash on C.H. James Parkway in Austell, Georgia.

Driving her mother's pickup truck without a license, a 26-year old woman began a string of accidents when she struck the back of a Toyota Tundra truck causing it to collide head-on with the Nissan Infiniti driven by Ms. Cook. Ms. Cook's Infiniti was then struck by a Freightliner tractor-trailer causing her car to burst into flames.

The next day ambulance chaser attorney Willie Gary of Stuart, Florida called the grieving mother and insisted that he fly to Georgia so they could meet and hire him. Gary flew to Georgia four days later with one thing in mind, to put the hard sell on Katrina's parents and overcome their objections to discuss business until after the funeral.

Katrina celebrating college graduation with mother

Katrina, a Superstar

Katrina was one of 11 sisters and brothers. She was a superstar in her own right. She established the nonprofit organization Footprints 4 Life, Inc. that provided shoes to homeless and underprivileged children. She was an advocate for abused and neglected children and her passion for playing and coaching basketball allowed her to be an inspiration and role model teaching, and coaching girls basketball teams in Georgia and New Jersey. Trina or Coach Kay, as she was fondly called, graduated from Phoebus High School in Hampton, Virginia and graduated with a degree in psychology from Kennesaw State University.

Georgia Pistols basketball team coached by Katrina

Georgia Powder Springs basketball team coached by Katrina

On March 5, 2015, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a resolution mourning "the loss of one of its most distinguished citizens" and "honoring her life and memory." "She was a person of magnanimous strengths with an unimpeachable reputation for integrity, intelligence, fairness and kindness and by the example she made of her life she made this world a better place in which to live..."

Resolution by Georgia House of Representatives

The Willie Gary Nightmare

After their heartbreaking loss, Ernestine and her family's nightmare with Willie Gary and his law firm began. Gary told them he needed to get on the case right away, before any evidence became distorted. Grief-stricken, Katrina's parents wanted to wait until after the funeral to discuss any business, but Gary insisted that they sign a contract with him immediately. He promised that he would be with them every step of the way. He boasted that he was the number one lawyer in the nation, and he was going to win billion dollar verdicts because the trucking company was one lawsuit and the Infiniti (Nissan) company was a separate lawsuit. With him representing them, he emphasized that the family would never have to worry about anything to pay for funeral costs and to continue Katrina's legacy of philanthropy.

Mrs. Elliott stated, "When I was talking to Mr. Gary a week after the accident, I told him that GEICO had contacted me about paying my daughter's death benefit she had left me. He asked how much is it. I replied $100,000. He told me to have GEICO send the death benefit check directly to him. His office then repeatedly badgered me to sign paperwork authorizing GEICO to send them the check. I expressed my concerns to Cheryl Curlett, a paralegal in the firm, about signing such a release form.

"Neither Gary nor his law firm were entitled to the death benefit check, but trusting in Mr. Gary to do the right thing, I finally signed the paperwork on October 15, 2014 authorizing GEICO to release the check to him, which was made out to me as beneficiary. After Mr. Gary received the authorization to receive the check, he became unavailable. I tried contacting him on several occasions, leaving voice mails and messages with his staff, but never received a call from him directly. I would always get a member from his team and they would be very rude and nasty."

Katrina standing on right of stepfather with five sisters

Predator Willie Gary Forever the Con Artist

After several months of trying to speak with Mr. Gary, Mrs. Elliott reached out to other attorneys for advice in mid-2015 and found one willing to help her. She emailed Gary a cease and desist letter. Twenty minutes later, Gary called her and said, "Mrs. Elliott this is Mr. Gary your attorney for life. I apologize for not communicating with you, but I have been out of my office." Mrs. Elliott expressed her concerns over the status of the cases against the trucking and car companies and whatever happened to her $100,000 GEICO check. Mr. Gary assured her that they were getting close to a settlement and just waiting to hear from the courts. He abruptly ended this conversation to avoid Ernestine's inquiry about the missing check.

In 2016, Mrs. Elliott received a copy of the Gary firm's "Closing Statement - Client #46330 relating to 'Wrongful Death / THE ESTATE OF KATRINA COOK vs FRANCIS DARR, ET AL." One item that was very puzzling to her was listed under "MONIES RECEIVED FROM: GEICO GENERAL INSURANCE COMPANY $125,000." The Closing Statement claimed that the $100,000 death benefit payment was part of the wrongful death settlement against Francis Darr whose daughter caused the accident. This was a complete lie. But it enabled Gary to falsely justify his theft of a large portion of the death benefit.

Gary and Firm Accused of Forgery and Theft

To Mrs. Elliott's shock, she later received from Ms. Curlett in Gary's office, a copy of the text of the AUTHORIZATION dated September 2014 sent to GEICO stating: "I Ernestine Ineal Elliott, hereby specifically authorize the Law Firm of GARY, WILLIAMS, PARENTI & WATSON, P.L.L.C. to endorse the $100,000 Settlement Check from GEICO General Insurance Co. in the amount of One Hundred Thousand Dollars ($100,000.00), in settlement of our wrongful death action against Francis Darr." Mrs. Elliott made it clear that she never signed that document which had to have been forged by Gary himself or someone in his law firm. Ms. Curlett died in August 2016 at the age of 51.

Mrs. Elliott stated, "Attorney Gary claimed that he recovered only $25,000 from Francis Darr's insurance, of which he was entitled to 40% ($10,000). In fact, the Gary law firm's closing statement itemizing expenses and attorneys' fees, shows that Gary and his co-counsel Tamar Faulhaber took $50,000 from my daughter's estate instead of the $10,000 they legitimately could claim from the $25,000 Darr settlement. The closing statement also listed contrived expenses to steal thousands more.

"Attorney Gary also assured me the cases against Nissan and the Freightliner Company were nowhere near closed and that this was just the beginning of his work to win settlements worth billions. He stated that the paperwork I was signing is just the first round. Attorney Gary stated, 'Just trust me, I have been doing this for years and I have won many cases like this. Do you remember the big cases I had with Shaw University and Coke. I got billions for those clients.' He reiterated, 'Just Trust Me.'" (The clients that Gary represented in a landmark discrimination case against The Coca-Cola Company were the only plaintiffs in the case who never received a penny and Gary never won any big cases involving Shaw University. In fact he has been accused by alumni of Shaw of numerous improprieties while serving, along with his partner Lorenzo Williams, on Shaw's board of trustees).

Katrina serving in United States Air Force

Promises, Promises, Crooked Willie Gary a No Show

Mrs. Elliott added, "Mr. Gary said he would be coming to Virginia soon, where I lived at the time, and would let us know the dates so we can meet to discuss the cases with Infiniti and the trucking company before submitting papers to the courts. He emphasized that Infiniti is the most important defendant to go after first and then the trucking company. He said the trucking company is not that big. We won't get as much out of them, as we will with Infiniti, due to the defect with the car. Unfortunately, I trusted Attorney Gary again, not realizing he was deceiving me and my family with a smile and his slick talk. The meeting Mr. Gary promised never took place."

Gary Firm's Effort to Cover-up Its Fraud and Colossal Malpractice

After ignoring numerous requests about the status of her case and requesting the case files be returned to her, she received a letter on Gary law firm stationary dated January 17, 2019 from LeRonnie M. Mason, Esquire For the Firm. The letter stated:

"Re: Ernestine Elliott as Personal Representative of the Estate of Katrina Cook v. Nissan

"Dear Ms. Elliott:

"Pursuant to our telephone conversation this morning, enclosed please find a copy of the letter we sent you on November 17, 2017 regarding the status of the above noted matter [Ernestine stated emphatically that she never received such a letter in 2017]. As I outlined in the letter, the Court granted the motion for Summary Judgement filed by Nissan North America based on the Statute of Repose. As such we were unable to appeal this issue as the Statute of Repose is not appealable and therefore had no alternative but to close our file.

"This letter will also confirm our conversation this morning where I told you we were in the process of retrieving your file from our storage facility. As I explained this could take a couple of weeks as we have thousands of files in storage. In the interim, I will be forwarding to you a complete copy of your file on a computer disc within the next few days. [Ernestine has never received any such disc or paper files].

"Finally, my paralegal spoke with the Probate Court this morning and was informed that until the Estate is closed it is necessary for you to file the inventory with the Probate Court on an annual basis. I have left a message for Tamara Faulhaber to call me to discuss closing the Estate. I have also written to her regarding this matter and am enclosing a copy of that letter for your review.

"Should you have any questions regarding this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me."

Lawsuit Charges Legal Malpractice, Fraud, Conversion, Civil Theft, and Bad Faith

Ernestine Elliott's lawsuit, Civil Action File No. 2019CV328802 entered on 10/31/19 in Georgia's Fulton County Superior Court charges:

"Defendants failed to bring two meritorious wrongful death claims on behalf of Ms. Cook's estate in a timely manner: (i) a products liability claim against the manufacturer of the car Ms. Cook was driving, a 2005 Nissan Infiniti, before the expiration of the statute of repose and the statute of limitations; and (ii) a personal injury action against the owner and driver of a Freightliner tractor-trailer responsible for the accident, Schneider National Carrier, Inc. ("Schneider National") and its employee-driver.

"In addition, Defendants Gary Firm and Willie Gary willfully converted a check for $100,000 payable to Ms. Elliott in her individual capacity, forged her signature to cash that check, retained the entire $100,000 for almost two years, and have retained over $50,000 to date. Ms. Cook's automobile insurer issued the check as a death benefit under the policy's uninsured motorist insurance policy, which had nothing to do with the scope of Defendants' retention. The Gary Defendants fraudulently induced Ms. Elliott to instruct the insurer to send the check to them, forged Ms. Elliott's signature as an endorsement of the check, and then fraudulently misrepresented that the funds were proceeds of a wrongful death settlement..."

Ernestine Elliott's April 2020 Scathing Letter to The Florida Bar

Because of their years of providing cover for the unethical and corrupt practices of Willie Gary and his law firm, The Florida Bar and the American Bar Association have besmirched their own reputations while at the same time they cleared the way for serial con artist Gary to operate above the law and grossly victimize more of his clients.

Ms. Elliott's family has been devastated due to Mr. Gary's deception and fraudulent behavior in the years surrounding the wrongful death of her daughter. "Without a doubt," she says, " attorney Willie Gary is ruthless, deceptive, and careless. He skillfully preys on people when they are vulnerable and at the lowest point in their lives and their hearts are broken. He manipulates and takes total advantage of them. I placed my sincere trust in attorney Gary, but he abused that trust just to enrich himself.

"I pray that justice is served and attorney Gary is disbarred and sent to prison. I believe he and his law firm are the scums of the earth. I have communicated with several past clients that he has defrauded and have further researched his deceitful, criminal behavior. I do not understand why Mr. Gary has not been imprisoned years ago, but time is running out for him.

"Although I am aware that a number of former clients of Mr. Gary and others have complained to The Florida Bar and the American Bar Association against him and his law firm ranging from legal malpractice to racketeering to no avail, I am publicizing my case and filing a complaint with The Florida Bar in hope's that it will take appropriate action to assure Mr. Gary's unethical and criminal behavior will be brought to an end."

The contents of this website posting and the following letter has been sent to President John Stewart of The Florida Bar, The Florida Bar's board of governors, its delegates to the American Bar Association, and to the American Bar Association president and executive director. (Mrs. Elliott's official filing of the attorney complaint with The Florida Bar has been postponed until The Florida Bar reopens after the Coronavirus subsides):

April 6, 2020

via email

John M. Stewart
President
The Florida Bar
651 E. Jefferson Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-2300
jstewart@rosswayswan.com
kwilson@floridabar.org

cc: Board of Governors

rscott@floridabar.org
dori@fostermorales.com
johna@bapfirm.com
candersen@bushross.com
rsb@searcylaw.com
TBopp@bankerlopez.com
jbranning@clarkpartington.com
rbresky@breskylegal.com.
lornab@lebburtonlaw.com
burgoon@burgoonlaw.com
josh@jpfirm.com
icomisky@foxrothschild.com
hilarycreary@hcpalegal.com
sdavis@bsfllp.com
sandra@diamondlawflorida.com
jordan@JADBusinesslaw.com
farrior@belawtampa.com
julie.frey@lddkr.com
paige@greenleelawtampa.com
whelsby@anblaw.com
hickey@hickeylawfirm.com
chigby@bryanthigby.com
jkim@kvllaw.com
glesser@lesserlawfirm.com
llile@lairdalile.com
stephanie.marchman@gray-robinson.com
sam@sammasterslegal.com
emeeks@meekslawfirm.com
edmyrtetus@eckertseamans.com
richard.nail@gray-robinson.com
morr@orrcook.com
jpiedra@kttlaw.com
ron.ponzoli@gray-robinson.com
adam@mr-lawyers.com
bwr@rkkattorneys.com
jrynor@mitrani.com
roland@smgqlaw.com
diana@santamarialaw.net
larry.sellers@hklaw.com|
simonn@gtlaw.com
wsmith@thesmithlawfirm.com
MTanner@gunster.com
rthompson@uww-adr.com
melissa.vansickle@nelsonmullins.com
jim@vickaryous.com
gweiss@mrachek-law.com
twert@deanmead.com
swestheimer@smrl.com
sdigangi@lawclc.com
ajw@esclaw.com
jodyhudgins@ffibank.com
sharonbmiddle10@gmail.com

cc: American Bar Association

Judy Perry Martinez, President
judym@spsr-law.com

Jack L. Rives, Executive Director
jrives@staff.abanet.org

cc: Florida Delegates to American Bar Association

John F. Harkness, Jr.
mailbox@flmic.com

William J. Schifino, Jr.
wschifino@gunster.com

William N. Shepard
William.Shepherd@hklaw.com

Michelle R. Suskauer
michelle@suskauerlaw.com

Michael J. Higer
mhiger@bergersingerman.com

Preethi Sekharan
psekharan@gunster.com

Masimba M. Mutamba
mmutamba@pbcgov.org

Dear President Stewart,

Please consider this letter to be my complaint against the Stuart-based law firm Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson and Gary, P.L.L.C. (the "Gary Firm") and attorneys Willie E. Gary, Chanthina B. Abney and Leronnie Mason (collectively, with the Gary Firm, the "Gary Lawyers"). On March 15, 2014, I retained the Gary Lawyers to represent me in wrongful death claims arising from the March 10, 2014 death of my daughter, Katrina Cook, in a multi-car accident in Cobb County, Georgia.

As set forth below and in the attached civil complaint that I recently filed in Georgia state court, the Gary Lawyers are guilty of:

(i) Theft of my funds;

(ii) Commission of a felony crime, e.g. felony theft under Florida and Georgia law;

(iii) Failure to comply with trust accounting rules;

(iv) Legal malpractice, including allowing the statute of limitation and statute of repose to expire before commencing a lawsuit against the responsible parties;

(v) Repeated fraudulent misrepresentations regarding the status of my claims; and

(vi) Failure to communicate with me regarding the status of my claims.

Please refer to the attached complaint for the details of the Gary Lawyer's misconduct, which is briefly summarized below for your convenience:

1. Theft of the proceeds of the $100,000 death benefit under the uninsured motorist coverage of my daughter's GEICO automobile insurance policy. When Willie Gary learned about the policy, he insisted that I direct GEICO to send the $100,000 check to him so he could review the check and protect my rights under the policy "as a courtesy." After he received the check, however, someone at his firm cashed it without my authorization. He refused to send me any portion of the funds until June 2016, when I received a portion of the funds after Gary deducted an alleged 40% contingency fee and $12,357.21 in alleged expenses. GEICO wanted to send me the entire $100,000, however, and there was no need for Gary to do any work in order to obtain those funds. Despite my repeated demands to return the $52,357.21 that he improperly retained, he has failed to do so. See Complaint, ¶¶ 25-30.

2. Gary's theft of the policy proceeds constitutes felony theft under Georgia and Florida law.

3. Gary's theft of the policy proceeds and improper charges for unearned fees and unrelated expenses violates trust accounting rules.

4. Legal Malpractice. Even though I retained the Gary Lawyers within days of my daughter's death, they failed to commence a civil lawsuit within the statute of limitations and the statute of repose. As a result, the lawsuit they commenced against Nissan, the manufacturer of my daughter's car, was dismissed. And the Gary Lawyers never commenced a lawsuit against the trucking company whose driver was responsible for the crash. They made many other mistakes that also constitute gross negligence and malpractice. See Complaint, ¶¶ 18-24. Their conduct is especially outrageous because Gary insisted that I had to retain him within days of my daughter's death so he could "preserve evidence" and protect my rights. In fact, he took no effort to preserve the vehicles involved in the crash, which resulted in the loss of critical evidence. Id. at ¶ 17. And once the Gary Lawyers received the $100,000 check from GEICO, they allowed my claim to languish.

5. Fraudulent Misrepresentations. After I retained the Gary Lawyers, I repeatedly asked them for progress reports as to the status of the case. They either ignored my communications or told me that they had started lawsuits against Nissan and the trucking company, which would take some time to resolve. In fact, they never commenced a lawsuit against the trucking company. On May 30, 2017, the court dismissed the lawsuit against Nissan based on the statute of repose. They didn't advise me that the lawsuit was dismissed, however, until January 2019 when I received a letter from LeRonnie Mason. That letter falsely asserts that they had previously advised me that the case had been dismissed in a November 2017 letter. I never received any such letter in November 2017, however, and the Gary Lawyers ignored my repeated inquiries from 2017 through January 2019. See Complaint, ¶¶ 31-34.

6. Failure to Communicate. Not only did the Gary Lawyers fail to keep me advised of the status of my claims, they affirmatively misrepresented the status of my claims, including their false statements that they had started a lawsuit against the trucking company and their failure to advise me that the Nissan lawsuit had been dismissed. See Complaint, ¶¶ 31-34. And despite my repeated demands for my case files, the Gary Lawyers have failed to send them to me. Id. at ¶ 34.

This is not the first time that the Gary Lawyers have engaged in fraud and malpractice. At the appropriate stage of your investigation into this complaint, the Florida Bar should investigate the Gary Lawyer’s misconduct toward other former clients, including Geneva Cook-Gervais, Zella Darleen Teague, Evelyn Robinson, and the post-Engle progeny tobacco cases of Blount, Brauer, and Gerhart, Gebhardt, Blount. The Gary Lawyers have exhibited a pattern of malpractice and attempting to cover up their misconduct through fraudulent misrepresentations to their clients and the Florida courts.

Accordingly, I request that the Florida bar commence its investigation into this complaint, refer my complaint to the state prosecutors for criminal prosecution, and ultimately recommend disbarment and substantial fines against the Gary Lawyers.

 

Sincerely,

Ernestine Elliot