Law firms feud over millions in class action settlement fees

Geoff McDonald & Associates, a local personal injury firm, is embroiled in a lawsuit with Beasley Allen playing out in federal court in Richmond. (BizSense file photos)

A Richmond law firm that’s used to fighting to win money for its clients is battling for a payday of its own.

Geoff McDonald & Associates, a local personal injury firm with 14 attorneys, is embroiled in a lawsuit with Beasley Allen, a much larger firm from Alabama.

Filed initially in Henrico County Circuit Court and now playing out in federal court in Richmond, the case centers on fees awarded from a big-dollar class action litigation settlement dating back to 2017.

GMA claims it had teamed with Beasley Allen on the case, which involved class claims against U.S. Financial Life Insurance Co. in federal court in Ohio, and that both sides had a pact to share any resulting attorney fees evenly.

Once a settlement was reached in the case, attorneys fees were eventually awarded in 2021 to the tune of $4.6 million.

The Geoff McDonald & Associates office is at 8720 Stony Point Parkway.

GMA says it was entitled to 45 percent of that, which amounts to $2 million. However, it alleges Beasley elbowed GMA out of the case to keep the fees for itself.

“The pleadings in that case reflect that GMA and Beasley Allen were co-counsel in the USFL Litigation up until the point where the case had been settled and Beasley Allen then, on its own, and without the knowledge or consent of GMA, removed GMA from the pleadings as co-counsel in order to try to improperly capture all of the fees,” the suit alleges.

GMA claims it has made a demand for the fee payment, which Beasley Allen has refused.

“This money was wrongly taken by Beasley Allen in breach of their agreement with GMA,” the lawsuit alleges.

This isn’t the first time the two law firms have butted heads over class action legal fees, according to the 13-page lawsuit filed Oct. 11.

Geoff McDonald

The fee agreement between them originated in 2015. That was after GMA namesake Geoff McDonald, a UVA grad who founded his firm in Richmond 30 years ago, had a close relationship with Gibson Vance, a senior partner at Beasley Allen, in which they would refer cases to one another.

GMA claims that in 2015 it got a lead to take on class action claims in another large insurance fraud case and brought Beasley Allen in to team together.

GMA claims they made a verbal agreement to work together and split the fees on the initial case and any such cases in the future.

They worked the first such case together, winning an award for the class and $8 million in fees for the attorneys. However, according to GMA’s latest lawsuit, it claims Beasley Allen tried to prevent GMA from getting its 35.8 percent share in that first case. A court battle in Maryland resolved that issue in GMA’s favor, the suit claims.

In this new dispute over the separate USFL case, GMA claims the fee arrangement was to have been identical to that previous case. To date, Beasley Allen has only sent GMA a check for $61,000 for the USFL case.

GMA alleges two counts of breach of oral agreement and conversion, asking a judge to award it the $2 million plus interest.

GMA is represented by attorney Bill Bayliss of Williams Mullen.

Beasley Allen is represented by Richmond attorney Edward Bagnell of Spotts Fain.

Neither Bagnell nor Bayliss returned a call seeking comment.

Beasley Allen has called for the suit to be dismissed, mainly on the grounds that the case doesn’t belong in federal court in Richmond due to the dispute arising in federal court in Ohio. It also cites a fees dispute clause from the case in Ohio and argues at the very least the case should be transferred back to Ohio for the judge there to hear GMA’s argument.

Judge Roderick Young is presiding over the case in Richmond federal court.

Law firms feud over millions in class action settlement fees