LAWYERS BEHAVING BADLY:
CHRIS CHESTNUT, JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA
The Florida Bar has a lot on Mr. Chestnut.
- SC16-797 (6 TFB files consolidated) – OPEN.
- Count I. Complaint of Lakay Smith: The Florida Bar alleged Michael Glover, an investigator for the Chestnut Firm and an unnamed associate, visited Ms. Smith at her home. Over the next two years, Ms. Smith made multiple telephone calls to the Chestnut Law Firm. On May 27, 2014, Mr. Harrison, Mr. Reneau’s paralegal, sent an email to respondent and Mr. Reneau stating “We are dangerously close to the SOL in this matter. One of you needs to make a call to the numbers below to shut this matter down.” On June 11, 2014, Mr. Reneau sent an email to respondent stating, “Chris, it is imperative that you give Mike Glover a call and you guys give [Ms. Smith] a call today. If Glover is not available, then you definitely still have to give her a call today… Once Chris calls Ms. Smith today the necessary steps should be taken to close this file.” Two weeks before the statute of limitations was to run out, an unknown secretary from the Chestnut Law Firm called Ms. Smith and stated that the insurance company refused the claim. In addition to not working the file and statute of limitations, Chestnut was not admitted in Georgia, but the Bar said it was “apparent from the record that respondent was actively involved in the case.”
- II. Complaint Re Emmanuel Baker, Sr.: Emanuel Baker, Sr. was involved in a catastrophic, work related accident. Upon signing, Chestnut crossed out the 33 1/3% fee and replaced it with a 28% fee regardless of the amount recovered. Chestnut made no attempt to ascertain whether or not Mr. Baker was mentally competent to make legal decisions. Chestnut sent his administrative staff to sign a new agreement because of a “typo.” It included a 40% contingency fee regardless of the amount recovered. On or about June 28, 2013, Chestnut “went to the Bakers’ home, induced Mr. Baker to sign the settlement check and attempted to induce him to execute a Settlement Memorandum which allocated a flat 40% fee and costs of $473,708. Included in the costs were charges for rental of private chartered jets, lodging at the Four Seasons Hotel, and numerous duplicative charges for consultation and deposition costs.” The Bakers sued Chestnut.
fiduciary duty to the Bakers, committed civil theft, and exploited the Bakers. On December 9, 2014, the jury found that Chestnut breached his fiduciary duty to the Bakers, committed civil theft, and exploited the Bakers.
- III. Complaint of Johnny Winthrop Powell: Despite not being licensed in Maryland, Respondent advertised via the internet in Maryland that one of his practice areas was “hazing injury” claims and that respondent’s attorneys handle hazing claims across the country and that “he can be anywhere in the United States within 24 hours.” In January 2015, almost two years after he retained The Chestnut Firm, Mr. Powell called to terminate his contract with respondent’s firm because no lawsuit had been filed. At no time did respondent or anyone at his firm inform Mr. Powell that the Chestnut firm had failed to comply with the Maryland Tort Claims Act. As a result of respondent’s failure to comply with the Maryland Tort Claims Act, Mr. Powell’s claims against the State of Maryland and Coppin State University, his claims were waived. On February 25, 2015, Mr. Powell filed suit against respondent and his firm in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland seeking damages in excess of $2,000,000.
- IV. Complaint of Andrew Levy: Andrew Levy hired Chestnut to represent him in an insurance denial claim against Allstate Insurance Company. After years of not being able to talk to anyone, Mr. Levy later received a letter dated May 1, 2015 – some 2 1⁄2 years after hiring respondent – stating “After a careful review of your case, we have chosen not to pursue your civil claim.” Allstate showed evidence Chestnut had done nothing on his claim except send two email.
- V. Complaint of Dr. John Hoehn: Dayna McGregor hired The Chestnut Firm to represent her after an auto accident. She was referred to Dr. John T. Hoehn, Chiropractic Physician, for treatment. A Letter of Protection was issued by Chestnut. In October 2012, Ms. McGregor’s bill amounted $4,075 comprising two statements (due to a change in Dr. Hoehn’s billing system). Chestnut’s office kept getting bills incorrect and refused to pay Dr. Hoehn or communicate with him fairly.
- VI. Complaint of Kashara Taylor: Kashara Taylor met with respondent at the mortuary where her son, Antonio Lamar Gordon, Jr.’s, funeral was being held, following his murder at a bowling alley. According to Ms. Taylor, one year after taking the case, all communication with respondent ceased. On May 1, 2015, over four years after undertaking representation, Chestnut advised Ms. Taylor he could no longer represent her. However, Chestnut did nothing to seek withdrawal from the Court. On September 25, 2015, Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss was granted, with respondent having failed to appear or petition the court for an order allowing him to withdraw.
- SC18-1614 (4 TFB files consolidated) – OPEN
- I. Complaint of Blondie Bascom: Ms. Bascom and her mother, Frances Reed, went to Richardson’s Funeral Home to make funeral arrangements for her father. Mr. Richardson of Richardson’s Funeral Home suggested they may have a wrongful death case and contacted Respondent, who then met with Ms. Bascom and Ms. Reed at the funeral home. Chestnut and Richardson presented a loan option to pay for the funeral. Ms. Reed “borrowed” $11,800, immediately repaid $1,800 in “fees” back to Prospect and received $10,000, which was paid to Richardson’s Funeral Home. The interest rate on the loan was 60% per annum. Five years of little activity later, Chestnut filed a notice to withdraw as counsel and motion in support claiming irreconcilable differences, but his firm continued with unusual and questionable action described in the Bar Complaint.
- II. Complaint of Liz Hubbard: Ms. Hubbard signed up with Chestnut, but claims it became extremely difficult for her to contact Respondent — she would call his office but could never reach him. Sometime in the latter half of 2017, Respondent and his firm ceased communication with Ms. Hubbard by email and would only speak to her on the phone. After about 4 years, Ms. Hubbard received a certified letter from Chestnut terminating their services stating, “After a careful review of your case, we have chosen not to pursue your claim for injuries.” Despite that, Chestnut emailed Ms. Hubbard, as well as the City of Jacksonville several times, in an attempt to “help” her with her case before the statute of limitations ran the end of April 2018.
- III. Complaint of Taura George: On April 29, 2016, Taura George’s friend referred her to Chestnut regarding a wrongful death suit involving the death of her mother in a nursing home earlier that month. Ms. George claims that from the very beginning she was given the run around. In November of 2017, Chestnut allegedly told her that he was meeting with the nursing home attorneys and wanted to resolve the case by the end of the year. During January 2018, Chestnut emailed her stating that he had met with the nursing home attorney and they decided to proceed with the lawsuit. On February 22, 2018, Chestnut emails Ms. George to say that he was still waiting for the nursing home’s attorney response. He filed a Complaint days before the Statute of Limitations, but after George filed a Bar Complaint.
- IV. Complaint of Wynetta Wright: On November 17, 2015, Ms. Wright and Respondent both signed a Contingency Fee Agreement and a Statement of Client’s Rights. According to Ms. Wright, she was never able to speak to Respondent again. On January 9, 2018, the court dismissed Ms. Wright’s case with prejudice based on Respondent’s failure to respond to discovery despite a previous court order to do so. On February 28, 2018, Respondent sent Ms. Wright a certified letter terminating his firm’s representation. In his response to the Bar, Chestnut stated that “once in litigation [the firm] withdrew from the case due to irreconcilable differences on valuation.” The Bar said there was no evidence, either on or off the record, that this statement was true.
- SC16-1480 (2 TFB files consolidated) – OPEN
- I. Complaint of Demetrius Jordan: While Ms. Berry was at the Gregory Levett Funeral Home making arrangements for her daughter’s funeral, Chestnut approached her and offered his services, according to the Florida Bar. Respondent suggested the cost of the funeral could be covered by the estate and that he would take care of everything. He presented a contract “between Universal Funds and [respondent] with a $3,050 origination/ processing fee and a 35.40% APR.” Further, the Bar indicated dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentations by the Chestnut Firm with the family.
- II. Complaint of Toni Washington: Ms. Washington’s grandson, 22 month-old Ty’Quarius, was killed by stray bullets while playing in the kitchen of the apartment he lived in with his mother, Ms. Hestle. Two days later, a man named Adrian called Ms. Washington. Adrian told Ms. Hestle that he worked for Chestnut and that he wanted to take her case. The following Monday, a man named Alfonso came to Ms. Washington’s home making those same claims. Alfonso continued returning to Ms. Washington’s house every day until the funeral the following Saturday. Chestnut assisted with the acquisition of a loan- despite the initial loan amount of only $5,000, the eventual pay-off to Golden Pear Funding was $35,931. Over the next few years, every time Ms. Washington, called respondent’s office, someone new was handling her case and nobody seemed to know what was going on. Ultimattely, the case settled. In addition to the four settlement statements, there is a fifth settlement statement listing a pay-out of $271,271.20 – once again completely different than any of the other four and the client couldn’t get anwers or a true accounting. According to Ms. Washington, on April 27, 2016, Chestnut called her and left a message asking her to drop her Bar complaint because “the crackers are trying to close me down cause [respondent] is taking white money giving it to black people.”
- SC17-307 (3 TFB files consolidated) – OPEN
- I. Complaint of Romona Berry: Ramona Berry’s daughter, Diedre Spear, was killed in an automobile accident in Atlanta, Georgia. While at the funeral home, Ms. Berry was approached by respondent, who told her he was a close friend of the funeral home director and that he would be able to assist her in both paying for the funeral and receiving insurance money for her daughter’s death. After that point, she had no further communication with respondent. At some point, members of the firm had Ms. Berry sign a affidavit she claims she didn’t see or agree with in full.
- IIa. Complaint of Alex Apostolou: Mr. Alex Apostolou, an attorney in South Carolina, was retained by a long-standing client, Tenisha Gibbs, after her nine-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. On October 28, 2016, Mr. Apostolou received a call from “Kelly” at Dickerson Mortuary who wanted to ensure that Mr. Apostolou, as Ms. Gibbs’ attorney, agreed to pay for the funeral. When Mr. Apostolou asked Kelly which attorneys she was speaking of, she responded Chris Chestnut out of Florida. Ms. Gibbs told him that the funeral people had told her that if her attorney would not pay for the funeral, she had the wrong attorney and that they had an attorney in Florida that would pay for the funeral no questions asked.
- IIb. Complaint of Alex Apostolou: Mary Ann Heyward, the mother of an existing client, Tiesha Heyward, came to see Mr. Apostolou. Ms. Heyward explained that her son, Deontae Reed, had been shot and killed at a Waffle House in Charleston County, South Carolina. A few days after the incident, an investigator appeared at Ms. Heyward’s door and told her he was sent there by the Victim’s Advocate, Teri Porcel. The investigator further told her that the Chestnut Law Firm was brought in to handle her civil case and proceeded to sign up the family. Since the investigator had mentioned the 9th Circuit Victim’s Advocate, Mr. Apostolou contacted Ms. Porcel and the prosecutor, Mr. Nelson. According to Ms. Porcel, she had never heard of the Chestnut Law Firm before.
- III. Complaint of Jamie Agnew: Ms. Agnew previously worked as an attorney with the Chestnut Firm in the Atlanta office. Ms. Agnew left respondent’s employ in December 2015. Thereafter, on December 1, 2016, Ms. Agnew learned that respondent’s law firm’s website still listed her as an employee. On December 1, 2016, after Ms. Agnew verified that both her biography and photo were still listed on respondent’s website, she sent respondent a certified cease and desist letter demanding that he remove her likeness and all mention of her previous employment within five days. Chestnut has not filed a response with the Bar, although he has removed Ms. Agnew’s information from his website.
- SC16-1589 – Closed
- The Florida Bar filed an Emergency Petition for Suspension of Chestnut’s license. It was denied.
- SC14-1870 – Closed
- I. Complaint of Robert Rush: The Florida Bar alleged Chestnut presented evidence at trial, which was, “clearly not just an exaggeration, but a complete fabrication of Ms. Johnson’s claimed injuries” and then “allowed his clients to testify, under oath, to the same false claims, and then restated them again in his closing statement.”
- II. Complaint of Belinda Greene-Strachan: According to the Florida Bar, Alphonso McClendon II introduced himself as an employee of Chestnut, asked her if she was represented by an attorney, told her that Chestnut would represent her in a wrongful death action. Ms. Greene-Strachan learned that the insurance company had filed and then voluntarily dismissed a Declaratory Action due to Chestnut’s failure to file a wrongful death action before the statute of limitations expired. At one point, Chestnut “phoned her and told her that she had “won $300,000” in her lawsuit, and that he wanted to take her and her husband to dinner to “celebrate”.” No such settlement occurred and her claim was settled after a legal malpractice action.
- III. Complaint of John Jopling: Chestnut was charged with incompetence, as, “Not only were the daughters not legitimate survivors, Respondent failed to identify an additional son” and “failed to appear at the depositions, and to date, has failed to pay for the costs of opposing counsel’s travel, as ordered by the court.” Further, the Bar pointed out the case was somehow referred from Chestnut’s father’s funeral home by someone who was there during funeral arrangements.
- IV. Complaint of Cherree Almon: After the death of her brother, three people, Pansy King, Bernard Phillips and Marcus Lett, appeared at her house unannounced and uninvited. They claimed to be representatives of The Chestnut Law Firm. Further, At no time did Chestnut inform Ms. Almon that he was not licensed to practice law in Georgia, a fact she found out later from a third party. Further, the original amount of the fee listed on the agreement was 40%. When Ms. Almon questioned that amount, Bernard changed it to 33-1/3% and initialed the change, but at closing Chestnut insisted the fee was 40%, “he simply responded that his firm always took a 40% fee,” even though Florida law caps these fees at 33 1/3 before suit is filed. There was also alleged impropriety in accounting, as, “According to Chestnut, the insurance company had sent a check for $400,000. The remaining $100,000 would be sent after “defense costs were deducted”.
- Resolution: Chestnut only received a public reprimand.