In the legal field, as in any other profession, not all business relationships pan out, as the ever-shifting array of firms and their component lawyers attests.
But the breakup of a new, high-powered black business shop in Atlanta seems more like a nasty divorce than a personnel move, complete with litigation in two counties, a money squabble, allegations of past and unrelated wrongdoing -- even a 911 "disturbance" call to the police.
At issue is Bradley E. Heard, a founding partner with Molden Holley Thompson Fergusson & -- until recently -- Heard. On June 1, he sued a Fulton County, Ga., magistrate judge to get her to reverse her denial of arrest warrants for his former colleagues he accused of criminal trespass, filing a false police report, and, in one partner's case, illegally voting in 2004.
The mandamus action, which Heard filed pro se in Fulton County Superior Court, came just 26 months after the firm's optimistic launch in April 2005.
The firm was started by four former Alston & Bird litigators -- Regina S. Molden, Oni A. Holley, E. Steven Thompson and Colette Y. Fergusson -- who enlisted Heard, the only non-Alston alum, at Thompson's suggestion, according to legal filings. Heard, a former associate with Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Hunton & Williams, had attended Morehouse College and Yale University Law School with Thompson.
In a statement to the Daily Report, managing partner Molden said all five "shared a vision to create the first law firm of its kind -- an African-American-owned law firm comprised of former big-firm lawyers servicing Fortune 500 companies and minority-owned businesses." The firm currently has 10 lawyers, not including Heard.
But by late last year the partnership was strained to the breaking point, she said. The other founders "could no longer continue to be business partners with Mr. Heard," added Molden, and discussions were begun to sever his relationship with the firm.
Depending upon whose filings one believes, Heard was either being denied access to the firm's books, shut out of personnel and policy decisions and suffering delays in receiving his distribution checks -- or he was mishandling cases, alienating clients, setting up his own practice in direct competition with Molden Holley and even trying to steal their cases and lure away employees.
NOT READY TO LEAVE, YET
In January, according to all parties, the partners and Heard signed a withdrawal agreement -- drafted by Heard -- in which he would leave the firm in return for payments totaling $128,000 and access to the company books until the entire sum was paid; he was issued an initial payment, and an e-mail was circulated informing the firm that his resignation was effective Jan. 31.
But, according to a complaint Heard filed in Cobb County Superior Court earlier this year, and later filings by himself and, on his behalf, by Marietta attorney Rodd Walton, there were still unresolved issues. They included the priority of his payments vis-à-vis other outlays, and how clients he had been servicing would be handled after the breakup.
On Jan. 30, according to the filing, Fergusson sent Heard a fax informing him that the following day would be the last in which he would be afforded daytime access to the office, and that he had until Feb. 10 to clear out his personal belongings.
But Heard accuses Fergusson of manufacturing and circulating false minutes of the meeting at which they finalized his exit, in order to make it seem as if all the details had been ironed out.
On Feb. 2, Heard came to the firm's office at 191 Peachtree St. in Atlanta "to access his client files, office computer and resources; to review his mail; and to meet personally with his associate to discuss pending client needs," according to his complaint.
"Within minutes," he continues, Molden, Holley and Fergusson had summoned building security, and Thompson -- Heard's old friend -- asked him to leave. He declined, telling Thompson and the security officer that "he was a member manager of [the firm] and, therefore, had a right to be there."
An Atlanta Police officer arrived and asked him to leave. Heard detailed the dispute to the officer, returned to his office and was soon confronted by the officer and his supervisor, Sgt. John Quigley, who "explained to him that he must leave the [firm's] premises immediately or risk being arrested for criminal trespass," according to Heard's complaint.
Heard left, and on Feb. 5 filed suit in Cobb County, where the firm's agent is registered and where Fergusson resides, accusing his ex-partners of "extreme, outrageous, and intentionally reckless conduct." He asked the court to declare that he was still a member of the firm and charged his former colleagues with, among other things, slander, libel and breach of fiduciary duty.
Heard also sought to have the firm itself dissolved and placed in receivership and accuses his former colleagues of having his belongings illegally hauled away and failing to have them delivered to him.
In an effort to illustrate Fergusson's "history of making false statements," Heard charged that she used a Mail Boxes Etc. address when registering to vote three years ago, instead of her real home address.
Asked about the accusation, Molden declared it "false and ridiculous."
In lengthy cross-filings filed for the firm, Thompson paints a picture of an otherwise functional firm beset by an increasingly divisive partner in Heard. Thompson says Heard's work was drawing complaints, including examples filed under seal.
Thompson writes that as far back as September 2006, Heard was trying to dissolve the firm and set up his own practice. (According to the Georgia Secretary of State Web site, The Heard Law Office was incorporated in 2001, and has remained in active compliance ever since.)
According the firm's filings, Heard and the other partners were in complete agreement as to the terms of his withdrawal agreement until Jan. 29, when he declared the signed documents "only a draft" and submitted new conditions, "including, among other things, a provision giving Heard's payment priority over equity partners and firm vendors and provisions that accelerated payments under certain circumstances."
The firm's refusal to renegotiate the deal, argues Heard, "negated the entire agreement, rendering Heard a full equity member of Molden Holley."
The firm's filings also claim that on Feb. 1 -- the day after his presumed resignation -- Heard contacted the firm's bank and changed the firm's accounts passwords, "denying Defendants access to their operating accounts."
He did the same thing on their Web site, altering information and changing the password so the modification could not be removed, according to the firm's filings.
The 46 documents filed by both sides include an e-mail written by Heard's attorney, Walton, asking Sgt. Quigley to make "modifications" to the Feb. 2 incident report.
Expressing appreciation for Walton's "input," Quigley responded that the documentation represented at the time indicated that "Mr. Heard had agreed to step aside as of Jan. 31," and state that the police report will remain unchanged.
Attempts to reach Heard by telephone and e-mail over several days were unsuccessful. Walton also could not be reached.
NEW PLAN OF ATTACK
The Cobb County case was originally before Senior Judge G. Conley Ingram, a former longtime partner at Alston & Bird. The case is now in the hands of Judge Robert E. Flournoy III.
But Heard opened a new line of attack Feb. 26, filing the criminal arrest warrants against Fergusson, Holley and Molden before Fulton County Magistrate Judge Stephanie Davis. The charges levied against Fergusson -- false voter registration and voting by an unqualified elector -- are both felonies.
At an April 16 hearing on the warrants, according to the complaint, Davis refused to hear from Heard's witnesses and disregarded his 127-page affidavit before declining to issue the warrants. He is asking the Superior Court to order her to issue the warrants for his adversaries, "and commit those individuals for trial on the alleged violations of the penal laws."
In an e-mail to the Daily Report, Davis declined to discuss the specifics of the case, other than to note that Heard is upset with her decision. She has referred the matter to the county attorney's office for review.
In her statement, Molden noted Flournoy's April 5 ruling declaring that Heard had not been a member of the firm since Feb. 1.
"Despite that ruling," said Molden, "Mr. Heard resorted to the Fulton County criminal courts in a vain effort denied him in the civil courts.
"Notwithstanding this unfortunate turn of events, Molden Holley continues to grow and prosper consistent with its original vision ... The remaining Molden Holley partners are deeply saddened by Mr. Heard's actions, but continue to wish him the best of luck as he pursues his own law practice."
The case in Cobb County Superior Court is Heard v. Fergusson et al, No. 07101037-40. The case in Fulton County Superior Court is Heard v. Davis, No. 2007CV134994.