In a highly redacted petition, plaintiffs attorney Robert Cheeley is asking a Fulton County judge to void a confidential arbitration award with his former law firm, Butler Wooten & Peak, claiming the arbitrator evinced “manifest disregard of Georgia law and public policies.”
The 11-page filing, which includes several pages virtually covered with blacked-out type, apparently reflects Cheeley’s dissatisfaction with the arbitrator’s fee award involving the firm and three cases. One of the cases ended in a confidential high-low agreement before a jury awarded $15 million in damages last year, and two more include a wrongful death action against Toyota and a talcum-powder suit against Johnson & Johnson that are both pending in federal court.
Cheeley and his lawyer, Barnes Law Group principal Roy Barnes, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Butler Wooten managing partner Joel Wooten.
Cheeley was a founding member of Butler Wooten in 1988, then left it and the legal field in 1997. He rejoined the practice of law in 2012, signing on with Conley Griggs Partin before rejoining Butler Wooten as a name partner in 2014.
He again exited the firm in mid-2016 to start The Cheeley Law Group. At the time, Butler Wooten partner Jim Butler said the parting was amicable, but according to the petition filed Tuesday, Cheeley filed a confidential arbitration action against the firm in December 2016 “regarding the parties’ dispute.”
That dispute is not explained, but the petition said copies of the award and contract at issue have been filed under seal.
The petition mentions three cases in which the plaintiffs terminated their representation agreements with Butler Wooten and stayed with Cheeley after he left the firm:
- In January 2017, a Bryan County jury awarded $15 million to Megan Richards, one of two nursing school students who survived a crash with a tractor-trailer truck that killed five fellow students.
While the jury was out, the parties reached a confidential high-low agreement, ending the case. After the trial, “Butler Wooten asserted a lien for attorneys’ fees and expenses for that case,” the petition said.
- A husband filed a wrongful death action on behalf of his wife in 2015. That lawsuit came 21 years after he reached a high-low with Toyota for an accident that left her in a coma until her death.
Toyota had argued the decades-old settlement absolved it from liability for anything beyond Delia Bibbs’ funeral costs, and Judge Richard Story of Georgia’s Northern District asked the Georgia Supreme Court to decide whether state law limited the recovery of wrongful death damages by the survivors of a plaintiff whose guardian had settled personal injury claims stemming from the same incident and, if so, which damages are barred.
The justices ruled in June that such damages were limited to noneconomic damages related only to the wrongful death claim.
“Put simply, we cannot say that Bibbs’ life in a coma had zero monetary value,” said the unanimous opinion authored by Justice Keith Blackwell. “After all, not everyone would choose to be disconnected from life support in the event of a catastrophic injury.”
“Whatever the residual value, if any, of Bibbs’ life to her while she was in a coma, this question is properly litigated in the district court,” Blackwell said.
Story had stayed the proceedings in the case until the high court ruled. The stay was lifted last month.
- In June 2016, Cheeley and partner Patrick Dawson filed suit in District Court for the Middle District of Georgia on behalf of Cammy and Michael Marchetti asserting that Cammy’s use of Johnson & Johnson Shower to Shower and Baby Powder caused her to develop ovarian cancer.
That case was consolidated with other Johnson & Johnson talc cases as part of multidistrict litigation in New Jersey.
“While the arbitration remained pending, Cheeley informed the Bibbs family and the Marchetti’s (separately) that Cheeley would have to withdraw from representing them,” his petition said.
The arbitrator is unidentifiable in the petition, which alleges several violations of Georgia’s statute governing the vacating of arbitration awards, including “a client’s right to select his counsel of choice,” the “prohibition against attorneys’ putting personal and financial interest interests ahead of their former clients,” the “prohibition of unreasonable restrictions on an attorney’s right to practice law” and multiple violations of Georgia’s Rules of Professional Conduct, among others.