A prominent Washington tax lawyer who was sued by a former client in a divorce case was hit with a $750,000 malpractice verdict yesterday by a Fairfax County Circuit Court jury.
Marjorie A. O'Connell never responded to the lawsuit filed this year by Deborah L. Bean, and she did not appear in court yesterday to contest Bean's malpractice allegations. After O'Connell failed to file written answers to the lawsuit, a Fairfax judge entered a default judgment against her in June, leaving a somewhat baffled jury to decide yesterday only what damages to impose against a defendant who wasn't there.
O'Connell, 50, who has served in several leadership roles in national and local bar associations and has testified before Congress on divorce taxation, said in an interview that she had not been served with the lawsuit and had not been aware of yesterday's hearing. "It's just a wonderment to me that she chose to take this course of action," O'Connell said of her former client.
The jury actually awarded Bean, who now lives in New York, $1.4 million--$400,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. Virginia law limits punitive damages to $350,000, so Circuit Court Judge Henry Hudson reduced the punitive amount accordingly. Bean could not be reached for comment.
Bean formerly lived in McLean, and she hired O'Connell in January 1996 to represent her in a divorce. The first task was to seek temporary child and spousal support. When the temporary support order was issued, Bean's estranged husband was directed to pay more than $8,350 a month to Bean to support her and her two children.
But the temporary order wasn't issued until October 1996, and Bean's attorneys in the case against O'Connell argued that the delay cost Bean 10 months of support. O'Connell said she believed she acted properly and achieved a good result for Bean.
Court records show O'Connell billed Bean more than $116,000 for her work, at a rate of $425 an hour. Lawrence D. Gaughan, who represented Bean in the divorce after she left O'Connell, testified in a video deposition yesterday that O'Connell's bills "bore virtually no relationship to the amount of work that would customarily have been done" in such a case.
Gaughan said that temporary support orders often are handled as emergency, or expedited, cases and that "$150 an hour might be an excessive fee" for such work.
"I certainly don't agree with that," O'Connell said of Gaughan's assertions that her fees were excessive. "I think we got an excellent support award for her. . . . We thought things were going strong."
O'Connell said she thought she had been friends with Bean, but Bean eventually stopped taking her calls and never paid her bills in full.
After Bean switched divorce lawyers, her new lawyers complained that O'Connell refused to turn over Bean's files. It was only after a June 1997 court order that O'Connell provided Bean's records, and her attorneys said O'Connell's lack of cooperation hampered their preparation of the divorce case and cost Bean an additional $70,000 in the final settlement.
O'Connell said she didn't have any original documents, that Bean had shown up with a suitcase of bills and assorted paperwork and later took the suitcase back. O'Connell also said she would challenge yesterday's verdict.
Jury foreman Richard C. Mattingly said jurors were surprised to hear a case with no defendant. "It made it very easy. There were no facts contested," Mattingly said. He said the length of time it took O'Connell to obtain the temporary support award "seemed pretty excessive" and that jurors were "sorry she couldn't be disbarred. It wasn't up to us."