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CHICAGO-An attorney who used DNA testing in a 2001 pro bono case to help exonerate two prison inmates convicted of murdering and raping a medical student is now battling the men’s new attorneys for fees she says she is owed. Kathleen Zellner of Chicago argued in a federal court filing this week that her pro bono work pertained only to the DNA testing motion in the case, and that her two clients signed contracts in 2002 agreeing to pay her 40% of any recovery they might receive in the future from civil lawsuits for the wrongful conviction. The two men, Larry Ollins and Omar Saunders, were convicted, along with two other men, for the murder of Lori Roscetti in 1986. They were released from prison in 2001 and pardoned by former Illinois Governor George Ryan in October 2002. Following their release, Zellner in January 2002 filed a civil lawsuit in state court against the city of Chicago and other parties for violating her clients’ civil rights through malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, emotional distress and conspiracy, but Ollins and Saunders fired her from the case after a disagreement in December of that year. Scott Kamin, the new lawyer for the men who filed a civil suit in federal court in 2003 against Chicago and Cook County, said there could be a settlement in the case “in the near future.” Ollins v. O’Brien, No . 03cv05795 (N.D. Ill.). Kamin, a solo practitioner in Chicago who is working on the case with Jenner & Block attorney David Bradford, said his clients will likely receive more than the $900,000 and $1.5 million awarded to the two other men in prior settlements. In her Feb. 27 federal filing, Zellner says she is due payment, at a minimum, for 2,818 hours of work on the case, plus $64,619 in expenses, because the contract required the men to pay a reasonable fee plus expenses if they parted ways. Zellner got a state lien against Ollins and Saunders on Dec. 20, 2002, a day after the two men said they were considering hiring a new attorney, she said in the filing. Getting such a lien is standard practice to guard against the possibility of a falling out, Zellner said in an interview before declining to discuss the dispute further. When Zellner first agreed to take the case in 2000, according to her court papers, the men signed two contracts, one in which she got $1 to represent them on pursuing the DNA motion in the old criminal case, and another under which they would pay her 40% of any sums recovered in civil rights actions. Kamin, who did not take the case on a pro bono basis, considers Zellner’s request for fees now inappropriate based on her public representation in the past that she was working on a pro bono basis. “Pro bono is something where you’re not supposed to do it for payment but for good,” Kamin said in an interview. On her law office Web site, Zellner recently touted a pro bono award she won from The National Law Journal in 2002 for her work on the case. But the site’s information was replaced with a note saying it was “under construction” a day after a reporter called to inquire about the fee dispute. Zellner argues in her recent filing that the new lawyers’ case filed in federal court relies almost entirely on work she provided for the clients. She also contends that they have no basis for not honoring the contracts, and urges the federal court to let her pursue the matter in state court. The parties have been in mediation in an effort to resolve the fee dispute. The men’s attorneys said in a Jan. 18 filing that they expect to be able to reach a settlement with the city and other authorities once the lien issue is resolved. Kamin and Bradford argue that Zellner doesn’t deserve payment partly because she had no role in their federal lawsuit filing, which claims that the men were denied due process and that the defendants conspired to violate their federal rights as part of a policy by the city. Kamin and Bradford also contend that for several legal reasons she has no justification for a lien. See related article (The National Law Journal, January 7, 2001): Free the innocent, make the state pay

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