Fen-Phen Side Effects: Irritable Lawyers

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Remember Fen-phen, the obesity wonder drug that made headlines in the late 1990s when the FDA took it off the market because of abnormal heart problems in users? That same drug also sent product-liability lawyers across the country scrambling to courthouses, taking enough settlement money to pay for Ivy League schools for more than just the next few generations to come.

One such Houston barrister, George Fleming, is now being sued in Harris County District Court, accused of charging more than 8,000 of his clients in a class-action Fen-phen case more than $29 million collectively in improper expenses.

But to Fleming’s attorney, Ron Franklin, this is just more of the same.

“We haven’t seen this lawsuit yet,” said Franklin,” but I’m pretty sure I know what it’s about. It’s probably a repeat of what was filed in federal court and already thrown out of court.”

Earlier this year, a Houston federal court judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by Houston attorney Jeffrey Chambers against Fleming. It claimed that Fleming charged his Fen-phen clients nearly $30 million to screen tens of thousands of potential additional clients by paying for their echocardiograms in order to see if they suffered heart problems as a result of the medication. The judge dismissed the case, saying that it did not meet the requirements for a class-action lawsuit.

Now, it appears that Chambers is trying again, filing a similar claim on behalf of a single client, who was prohibited from joining the earlier federal class-action lawsuit, and in a different court.

This lawsuit accuses Fleming of fraudulently charging his clients without their knowledge for heart tests on potential victims of the weight-loss drug in order to sign on more clients.

“Fleming … did not perform [the tests] for the benefit of Clients,” Chambers wrote in the latest complaint. “Fleming … performed [the tests] in an effort to obtain the largest possible universe of clients with arguable injury so that Fleming … eventually could obtain the largest possible aggregate settlement and attorney’s fees possible ….”

The lawsuit also accuses Fleming of failing to make a detailed disclosure required of him as fiduciary “of hundreds of thousands of dollars in unreasonable and excessive charges for meals, travel, transportation, lodging and other expenses. In fact, [Fleming] did not provide Clients with any detailed breakdown of $40 million plus in total expenses that [Fleming] charged to Clients.”

Chambers could not be reached for comment.

Franklin, however, is on the offensive.

He points out that the federal judge who dismissed the case against Fleming questioned Chambers’ ability as a lawyer, writing in an order that, “there has not been a consistent showing of the diligence, zeal, and competence expected of class counsel.”

Additionally, says Franklin, “I also know that the State Bar of Texas is investigating Mr. Chambers for ambulance-chasing in connection with getting [the primary class plaintiff in the federal court lawsuit] as a new client. I don’t know how he acquired these other clients, I’m not suggesting anything, I just don’t know. But I do know that the substance of the case which is alleging wrongdoing on behalf of Mr. Fleming was thrown out.”

Kim Davey of the State Bar of Texas says she cannot confirm or deny an active investigation, but that Chambers has no criminal history with the bar.

As for how Chambers and his new client fare in this latest lawsuit against Fleming, we will have to wait and see.

-- Chris Vogel

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