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W hen Brent Ferguson and Florencia Prieto hired Walnut Creek lawyer Michael Meadows to represent them in a suit against Unocal Corp. over a toxic leak at an East Bay plant in 1994, they say they told him they wanted no part of any class action.

Three years later, after class action litigation giant Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein entered the picture, the case settled — as a class action global settlement. Ferguson got $125,000 out of the $80 million pot, while Prieto received $100,000.

Both promptly turned around and sued Lieff Cabraser and Meadows, accusing them of legal malpractice. They claimed that the lawyers entered into an agreement, without their knowledge, that not only deprived them of making claims for punitive damages, but also kept them from pursuing suits against Unocal individually.

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