Working for West

Texas lawyers with ties to West are finding ways to pitch in and help after a fertilizer plant explosion on April 17 left untold numbers of people dead and dozens of homes flattened. Amy Gremminger White, an associate with Locke Lord in Dallas, grew up in West; her family still resides there. "I am one of the few that left," she says about her hometown. White’s parents, from their home about one mile away from the plant, heard the loud blast on the evening of April 17. So loud was the boom, they initially thought the explosion had occurred in their attic, White says. But after running outdoors and seeing a fireball down the road, her parents jumped into their car and drove to the scene to offer help. On their way, they picked up a first responder who had a broken leg and took her to a hospital. White’s parents then spent much of the evening assisting at a triage unit officials had established. From her office in Dallas, White hopes that the kind messages she has received from lawyer-friends will translate soon into organized effort by attorneys to help her hometown. Abelino "Abel" Reyna, the district attorney in McLennan County, where the tiny Central Texas town of West is located, reached the scene of the tragedy at about 10:00 p.m. on April 17. Reyna says his wife and seven assistant district attorneys had joined him in driving north after hearing about the explosion. In West, the prosecutors fanned out, staying until the next morning, to help first responders and others at a makeshift triage unit and a law enforcement command post. As of presstime, Reyna’s office was standing by, ready if the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office needed requests for subpoenas or any legal information or advice. Investigators from his office are assisting the sheriff’s office, Reyna says. His office’s chief investigator is the sheriff’s brother, so Reyna predicts coordination will go smoothly. The work is grim, though. "Right now, literally, we are just trying to find survivors and bodies. We have a bunch of friends over there that have lost loved ones," Reyna reports. On April 18, the State Bar of Texas enabled the disaster response hotline for victims of the West explosion: (800) 504-7030.

Barratry Bill

The Texas House unanimously passed a bill on April 11 that would tweak a 2011 law that allows people to sue lawyers who illegally solicit their legal business. House Bill 1711 now makes its way to the Senate. Under current law, a person can sue an attorney who secured a legal contract through barratry. A client who prevails in voiding a contract could recover attorney fees and expenses already paid to the lawyer, as well as actual damages and attorney fees. The law also allows a barratry victim who didn’t sign a legal contract to sue "any person who committed barratry" and win a $10,000 penalty from each violator, actual damages and attorney fees. HB 1711 tweaks the law by enabling the client who signed a contract to also recover the $10,000 penalty, even if the lawyer already voluntarily voided the contract. After an initial public hearing on March 11 the House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee unanimously passed a committee substitute for HB 1711 on March 25. The substitute added a provision that says actions under the barratry law aren’t subject to the expedited action process in Texas Rules of Civil Procedure 169. HB 1711 author Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, wasn’t available for comment before deadline.

Judicial Pay

No one testified on April 15 when the Texas House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee held a public hearing on a bill that would increase the salaries for long-serving intermediate appellate court justices, and some district judges. When explaining House Bill 1710, author Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, said the proposal gives an option for counties to give district judges a cost-of-living increase, if the state doesn’t give the increase. But Raymond added, "We may do it this year." He said, "I know we are a really big state, and I recognize in some areas . . . maybe you don’t need a pay increase. Maybe you don’t have the workload to merit it. But clearly, in other areas, we should give the commissioners court that option." HB 1710 says if the state didn’t increase a district judge’s pay in the preceding three-year period, then a county commissioner’s court could provide a cost-of-living salary increase of up to 10 percent of the judge’s salary. The bill also lowers the years-of-service requirement from 16 to 10 years for a judge or justice to get longevity pay, which is 3.1 percent of the judge’s salary. The Legislative Budget Board’s fiscal note for HB 1710 says that 89 justices get longevity pay now; the bill would increase the number to 199, and cost the state $545,000 per year. Raymond proposed a committee substitute bill, explaining that the substitute said if the state gave a cost-of-living increase, a county would have to rescind its own increase. A November 2012 report by the Judicial Compensation Commission recommended a more than 21 percent increase in judicial salaries for district judges, intermediate appellate justices and jurists of the two high courts. [See "Higher Pay Urged for Texas Judges," Texas Lawyer, Dec. 10, 2012, page 1.]