A Texas law firm at work in Arkansas stands accused of involvement in a multimillion-dollar conspiracy that sent “runners” to hand out business cards at funerals and recruit plaintiffs for wrongful death suits.
Essentially, it’s a charge of hearse-chasing.
Attorney Jason M. Hatfield of Springdale laid out the allegations in a 43-page lawsuit in federal court in Fayetteville. He filed the action last month against attorney Steven Kherkher of Houston and his firm, Kherkher Garcia LLP, describing the funeral behavior as both criminal and unethical.
“It represents a stark warning for the practice of law in Arkansas: non-attorney case-runners were immediately dispatched from Texas to attend the funerals of the victims to secure contracts using promise of United States citizenship and payment of funeral expenses,” said the suit, which was filed on behalf of Hatfield’s law firm by attorney Mark Henry of Fayetteville.
Hatfield said he was representing clients whose relative died in an auto accident involving a tractor-trailer operated by a driver for J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell and was working to open an estate for the victim when Kherkher contacted him with a demand to “stand down” and not to contact the clients again.
Hatfield did as requested, but he also attached a lien on any settlement with J.B. Hunt in the case. And he opened his own investigation, discovering what he called a long pattern of improper solicitation after fatal accidents, including the use of runners and misrepresentations aimed at getting grieving survivors to hire law firms they were working for, according to the lawsuit.
Hatfield sent a copy of the complaint to the Arkansas Committee on Professional Conduct for disciplinary or disbarment proceedings against Kherkher and another attorney, Tony Pirani of Fayetteville.
Pirani, who wasn’t named as a defendant in Hatfield’s suit, made his first appearance in the J.B. Hunt case as Kherkher’s co-counsel in May 2021, five months after the wrongful death case was filed.
Pirani said in an email to Arkansas Business that he and Kherkher “strongly dispute the allegations in Hatfield’s pleadings, which contain numerous and myriad misrepresentations, distortions, and outright false statements of fact.
“Both myself, my firm, and my co-counsel in the underlying case stand strongly behind the work we’ve done and continue to do on behalf of our clients, and we are proud of the incredible results we were able to obtain on their behalf,” Pirani wrote.
The plaintiffs in the wrongful death case reached a settlement with J.B. Hunt, but Hatfield filed a motion in April in that case to enforce his lien. That case is pending in Washington County Circuit Court.
Pirani said that he and Kherkher want the families to receive their long-awaited settlement, “and Hatfield’s attempts to obtain payment for work he did not do is only needlessly delaying that justice for these innocent victims.”
Pirani said he and Kherkher would not comment further on the pending litigation.
Hatfield is suing Kherkher, his firm, Cesar Ornelas of Harlingen, Texas, and others for alleged anti-racketeering law violations.
Hatfield said in the complaint that Ornelas is “an illegal and unethical professional case-runner” and has a “long-history of being sued for illegal case running in Texas.”
While at funerals or in visitation with a family, Ornelas allegedly makes false statements and promises to get survivors to sign with the law firms with which Ornelas has an arrangement to split the attorneys’ fees, the suit said.
Ornelas didn’t return several messages left on his cellphone.
“I can’t imagine anybody more vulnerable than preying on somebody who’s trying to make funeral arrangements for their lost loved one. It’s despicable,” said Kevin Glasheen, an attorney who has law offices in New Mexico and Texas. Glasheen has on his website a post called “Cesar Ornelas Funeral Home Scam,” which details allegations similar to those made by Hatfield, although they don’t involve Kherkher’s firm.
Hatfield, a 1997 graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law, told Arkansas Business that his case is “important to the integrity of our profession.”
On Nov. 23, 2020, Ana Delia Mejia Flores, 45, of Springdale was driving a 2013 Honda CR-V with her friend, Flor Maribel Recinos Valle, 36, as passenger when a J.B. Hunt tractor-trailer crossed the centerline on Highway 59 north of Gentry, according to a report from the Arkansas Department of Public Safety.
The media reported on the accident that killed Flores and Valle. The funerals for both were scheduled for Nov. 28, 2020, at Westfield Chapel Funeral Home in Springdale.
The office of Hatfield, a personal injury attorney, is close to the homes of Valle’s brother, Vidal Antonio Recinos, and Valle’s two adult children, Laura Yaneth Mancia Recinos and Ever Noe Mancia Recinos.
Valle’s brother called Hatfield’s office early on Nov. 30, 2020, to arrange a meeting with Hatfield. Valle’s brother and her two adult children met in the law firm’s conference room and asked Hatfield to represent them in a wrongful death lawsuit. After they signed contracts with Hatfield, who has handled personal injury cases his entire career, he began working on the case.
But on that same day, Hatfield received a call from attorney Kherkher, saying that he was representing Valle’s children and to “stand down.” Kherkher also allegedly said that “they can’t fire me. I paid the funeral expenses,” according to a Dec. 2, 2020, email from Hatfield to Kherkher recounting their phone conversation.
Hatfield immediately became suspicious.
Hatfield said that, during the conference with Valle’s family, he learned that lawyers were at the funeral handing out business cards.
The family members didn’t sign with any attorney at that time, Hatfield said in the email to Kherkher. “Without divulging any confidential communications, I also believe they were in fear of outside forces,” Hatfield wrote.
Hatfield also said that there were allegations of promises of citizenship made, although the email didn’t say who was making the promises or whom they were directed toward.
“This would be inappropriate, because no lawyer can promise citizenship to anyone,” Hatfield wrote in the email to Kherkher. “However, I am sure that a promise of citizenship could induce one to say or do a lot, i.e., discontinue legal representation.”
During the initial call with Kherkher, Hatfield also asked him how a Houston lawyer would end up with contracts to represent these Salvadorans in Springdale less than a week after their mother’s death.
According to Hatfield’s email, Kherkher told Hatfield that a “Hispanic” firm in Arkansas had referred the cases to him. Hatfield wanted to know which firm it was, but Kherkher didn’t respond.
The funeral announcement for Flores and Valle apparently didn’t go unnoticed by Ornelas, whose business card lists him as an account representative of Nunez & Associates, according to Hatfield’s complaint.
Another of the company’s account representatives, Mike McCoy of Austin, Texas, also accompanied Ornelas to Springdale for the funeral, according to the suit.
But the company they work for, Nunez & Associates, is a “purely fictional entity,” the lawsuit said. And the business cards were to provide legitimacy to Ornelas and McCoy, according to the complaint.
Ornelas and McCoy offered to pay for the funerals of Flores and Valle, to entice their families to sign with their partner law firm, according to the suit. Flores’ family hired Kherkher to represent them in the case against J.B. Hunt. Kherkher’s firm’s website touts that it has won billions of dollars for its clients.
Hatfield also named McCoy as a defendant in the lawsuit. McCoy told Arkansas Business that he hadn’t seen the complaint and declined to talk about it. As of Tuesday morning, none of the defendants had filed a response in the case.
Hatfield said in the suit that either Ornelas or McCoy gave the false promise of U.S. citizenship to one or more of Flores’ and Valle’s family members.
Hatfield accused both Ornelas and McCoy of barratry, also known as ambulance chasing. It’s a crime in Texas, but not Arkansas, and occurs when a person is hired by an attorney to solicit business. “It is unethical and illegal for attorneys in Texas and Arkansas to have fee-splitting arrangements with non-attorneys such as McCoy and Ornelas,” the suit said.
The lawsuit also alleged that Ornelas has conspired with funeral home directors to lure families into signing contracts for legal services with law firms in which he has an economic interest.
Hatfield’s lawsuit doesn’t suggest that Westfield Chapel Funeral Home, where the services for Flores and Valle were held, was involved in any wrongdoing, and it is not named as a defendant in the case.
Scott Berna of Fayetteville, a past president of the Arkansas Funeral Directors Association, told Arkansas Business that he had never heard of Ornelas or McCoy or about the allegation of visiting funeral homes to recruit clients. “If somebody’s doing that, obviously, they’re unscrupulous,” Berna said.
McCoy claims to have “partner” law firms, Hatfield said in the suit. “Discovery will help uncover the extent of his ‘partner’ network.”
Glasheen, the attorney with offices in Texas, said Ornelas started the solicitation business to funeral homes “years and years ago,” and that Ornelas handed out brochures on how to solicit people for his services to funeral home directors at association meetings. Ornelas “was going around the New Mexico State Funeral Home Association annual convention with another guy, showing off a $100,000 check that they paid for a referral from a funeral home in Albuquerque,” New Mexico, Glasheen said.
He said the funeral directors solicit people who are perceived as unsophisticated or in the country illegally. “A lot of them don’t speak English,” Glasheen said. “They’re not going to solicit a west Texas rancher family.”
Glasheen said that he was aware of about a half-dozen cases where Ornelas had solicited plaintiffs, typically through funeral homes for wrongful death cases.
Hatfield said in his complaint that he believed there were more than two other wrongful death lawsuits that the defendants obtained by means similar to those in Valle’s case.
“To this day, Ornelas, McCoy and Nunez & Associates continue to search for and prey upon potential clients on a national scale,” the suit said.
Hatfield is seeking for the contract between Kherkher and the Valle estate to be voided. He also wants Kherkher and his firm to give up all proceeds as a “result of their criminal, unethical, and fraudulent conduct,” the suit said.
Hatfield is asking for an unspecified amount of damages. The case is before Senior District Judge P. K. Holmes III.