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Nothing makes class action lawyers seethe more than last-minute intervenors wanting their share of a settlement. But when that happened two weeks ago in a $10 million settlement with Southwestern Bell Telephone, all the parties walked away seemingly happy. Maybe that’s because they are legal services agencies that serve the poor in Texas. The legal services agencies jumped into the case by objecting to the settlement in Jose Mireles et al. v. Southwestern Bell Telephone, a complicated suit filed in Texas’ Brownsville state district court. The estimated 7 million plaintiffs alleged the telecommunications giant overcharged Texas customers. Southwestern Bell denied the allegations. But because the recovery due each class member was hardly more than the cost to mail a check, the plaintiffs aimed the settlement at improving the customers’ telecommunications infrastructure. The money will go directly to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF), an obscure state agency that is responsible for high-speed telecommunications and Internet services for libraries of higher education institutions and certain medical facilities. But because of the legal services groups efforts, as part of the May 4 settlement, TIF will be encouraged to spend 20 percent of the $10 million on improving telecommunications for legal services. “It was pleasantly surprising because of where the money is going,” says Fernando Mancias, judge of Edinburgh, Texas’ 93rd District Court who heard the case by assignment and approved the settlement. “I’ve never seen that before to be honest with you.” That $1.6 million in funding could be crucial in bringing legal aid lawyers technologically up to speed with the rest of the business world, says Randy Chapman, executive director of Austin’s Texas Legal Services Center, a nonfederally funded legal services organization that intervened in the class action. “We have been looking for over two years for a method of improving technology in legal services,” Chapman says. “Eighty percent of our lawyers don’t have access to desktop e-mail. It is critical to be able to communicate with other lawyers.” INTERESTING REQUEST In the mid-1990s, Congress slashed funding for legal services. Lawmakers effectively prohibited federally funded legal services agencies from filing class action cases on behalf of clients. So naturally, the intervenors’ request in Mireles initially raised the eyebrows of Southwestern Bell lawyers. “Nobody disputes that there is a need for legal services for the poor and funding sources for that are difficult to come by,” says David Brown, in-house counsel for Southwestern Bell. “Our position on their objection is that they didn’t have any business being in the lawsuit. They were skirting if not violating federal law by being there.” But because the legal services groups’ intervention didn’t upset the settlement, Southwestern Bell lawyers agreed to it, Brown says. Chapman says the federally funded Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C., approved of the intervention because Chapman’s organization was representing legal aid agencies instead of individual clients. LSC doles out grants to 237 legal aid groups around the country. “The key there is the settlement did not change,” Brown says. “We didn’t have to write any bigger checks or reformat how we pay the money.” Jeffery Tillotson, a partner in Dallas’ Lynn Stodghill Melsheimer & Tillotson who represented the plaintiff class, could not be reached for comment by press time. Still, TIF has to approve the use of the settlement funds before legal services gets a dime. TIF executive director Arnold Viramontes says he has not seen the settlement, but expects the money will be distributed according to the agreement, pending the approval of the TIF board. “The reason they came to TIF is we already have a grant program that’s very successful and we can also administer those funds as outlined in the settlement,” Viramontes says. The settlement agreement is an ingenious yet appropriate way to funnel money to legal services, says James Paulsen, a South Texas College of Law professor who testified on behalf of the legal services organizations. “It seems eminently fair that some portion of a class action settlement should go to legal services of the poor in the same vein as a court filing fee add-on,” Paulsen says. “There’s a basic fundamental fairness.”

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