By PHILLIP BANTZ
A personal injury lawyer based in Keene is one step closer to losing his license to practice law in New Hampshire.
A hearing panel for the N.H. Supreme Court Attorney Discipline Office recommended Monday that Timothy A. O’Meara be disbarred for violating several rules of conduct.
The four-member panel of lawyers and non-lawyers concluded that O’Meara lied to a paralyzed client and her family and coerced them to sign an agreement to pay him $2 million in legal fees.
The panel determined that O’Meara placed his interests above the interests of his client.
In a scathing 40-page decision against O’Meara, panel Chairman Robert C. Varney wrote that “it is apparent greed got the best of Mr. O’Meara.”
O’Meara has referred questions about his disciplinary case to his attorney, Michael R. Callahan, who did not return messages left at his Concord office.
The panel’s recommendation to disbar O’Meara has been forwarded to the state’s Professional Conduct Committee, which will issue its own decision.
If the committee decides O’Meara should be disbarred, the case will be bumped up to the Supreme Court.
The state’s highest court has final say on any disciplinary cases that involve the possibility of disbarment or any other sanction greater than a six-month suspension from practicing law.
Disbarment is rare in New Hampshire. Only two lawyers have been banned from practicing law in the state since 2006.
Lawyers who are disbarred in one state are commonly disbarred in every other state where they are authorized to practice law.
O’Meara is a bar member in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Vermont.
Disbarred lawyers can apply for readmission, but they must retake the bar exam, pass character and fitness hearings and undergo rehabilitation, said James L. DeHart, general counsel for the N.H. Attorney Discipline Office.
“They’ve got to show that they’ve done something to rehabilitate their lives so their conduct is such that it’s not likely they will offend again,” he said.
In 2005, O’Meara agreed to represent Anita Conant after a paving company’s dump truck slammed into the back of her car.
Conant, a Hampton resident, was stopped at a lighted intersection in Pennsylvania, where she was attending her father’s funeral, when the speeding truck hit her car.
The car was launched into the air and sailed about 130 feet before it landed on its roof. The impact severed Conant’s spine. She was left paralyzed from the neck down.
O’Meara sued the paving company, Lyons & Hohl Paving Inc., and offered to settle the case for the company’s $11 million insurance policy limit through The Cincinnati Insurance Companies. Lyons & Hohl kicked in another $500,000 as part of the settlement.
The Conants say they never authorized the settlement, which represents less than half of what a certified life-care planner, who O’Meara hired, determined it would cost to care for Conant during her lifetime.
O’Meara disregarded the estimated life-care costs and went after the settlement because he wanted a quick payday, according to disciplinary counsel Landya B. McCafferty, who represented the Conants during the panel hearings.
McCafferty declined comment on the panel’s decision.
After the Conants confronted O’Meara about making the alleged unauthorized offer, O’Meara mailed a letter to Cincinnati Insurance stating that the Conants had withdrawn their settlement demand.
While he wrote the letter on Jan. 24, 2006, he dated it for Jan. 20 — several days before the insurance company had accepted O’Meara’s settlement proposal.
O’Meara testified during the panel hearings that the erroneous date was an innocent mistake.
“The Panel finds no credibility in Mr. O’Meara’s testimony that the date on the letter was just a ‘mistake,’” Varney wrote in the panel’s decision.
A correct date would have rendered the letter useless because Cincinnati Insurance had already accepted O’Meara’s offer for the policy limit by that date, according to the panel.
When the Conants learned of O’Meara’s alleged unauthorized settlement offer, they asked him to reduce his fee. They also asked what would happen if they fired him.
“Mr. O’Meara replied he would sue for his full one-third fee,” Varney wrote. “He also told the group he would win.”
However, O’Meara’s contract gave the Conants the option to fire him and pay him and any of the employees at his firm who worked on the case $275 an hour. O’Meara testified that he never told the Conants about this option, and he did not keep track of the hours his firm spent on the case.
During a heated meeting with the Conants, O’Meara agreed to insert “to be negotiated” into his contract for his legal fee. This happened after he failed to persuade the family to pay him $2 million in fees, according to the panel.
But O’Meara testified that the family did, in fact, make a verbal agreement to pay him $2 million during the meeting.
He said the new fee was not written into the contract during the meeting because he “has terrible handwriting” and because he was “on his way out the door of the Conant residence, it was snowing heavily, and it had been a long day,” Varney wrote.
The panel rejected both explanations, calling them “incredible.”
During the final day of mediation at a courthouse in Philadelphia, O’Meara used “strong-arm tactics” to pressure the Conants to sign a contract that gave him $2 million in legal fees, Varney wrote.
He told the Conants that he would walk away from their case, moments before the court hearing, if they continued to refuse to sign the contract, according to the panel.
The Conants signed the contract, but they disputed O’Meara’s legal fees once the case was settled. After arbitration, O’Meara received $1.6 million — the largest payment of his law career.
The panel’s decision to recommend disbarment was also influenced by Conant’s vulnerability, according to Varney.
Conant, who is unable to speak or care for herself, attended the panel hearings with her family. Strapped into a bulky wheelchair, she sat across the room from O’Meara, her respirator making an air-sucking whistle every few seconds.
The panel said O’Meara took advantage of the Conants while they were worried about an uncertain financial future and busy caring for Conant.
“The Panel finds that Mr. O’Meara inappropriately attempted to use these factors to leverage himself into a stronger position for negotiating a $2 million fee,” Varney wrote.
O’Meara’s checkered past also played a role in the panel’s decision.
He was publicly censured in 2003 for lying to a judge about an erroneous date he placed on a court document while representing himself in a divorce and child custody case. And when he was a student at Franklin Pierce Law Center he was suspended for cheating.
“This pattern of conduct indicates either the lack of a moral compass, or an inability to comprehend what constitutes acceptable conduct in the practice of law, or both,” Varney wrote.