WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) — A plaintiff's attorney who’s built a reputation for representing attorneys general and other public entities has traded one prominent law firm for another.

Linda Singer has left Cohen Milstein to join Motley Rice and lead its public client practice from its Washington office, the firm announced recently. The move will be a continuation of her work for attorneys general in consumer and financial fraud and health care litigation.

Singer was the attorney general of the District of Columbia from 2007 to 2008. In private practice, she’s used her experience as an AG to represent other states in complex litigation on behalf of the public. She’s taken on mortgage fraud in Nevada, abuse at nursing homes in New Mexico and credit bureaus in Mississippi.

The firm also announced the addition of Mimi Liu to work alongside Singer. Liu also has represented attorneys general and other public entities. According to her law firm bio, she was hired by the New Hampshire attorney general to investigate the allegedly deceptive marketing practices used to promote opioids. She recovered millions of dollars for the state. From 2004 to 2012, she was a senior lawyer for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

"Linda and Mimi bring extensive experience and leadership in working with attorneys general and government entities," Joe Rice, co-founder of Motley Rice, said.

Singer and Liu declined an interview, but in a co-statement to Legal Newsline, said: “We look forward to continue assisting attorneys general and other public entities that protect and serve the interests of their citizens.”

A pioneering firm

In the 1990s, attorneys general, with the help of plaintiff's attorneys, took on their first great foe: big tobacco. In the largest civil settlement in history, tobacco companies agreed to stop advertising and targeting young people, and to pay billions to state governments for the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses. 

That landmark legal battle established a model for similar litigation, and Motley Rice has always been at the forefront of that business, Darren McKinney, spokesman for the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), told Legal Newsline.

Before forming Motley Rice in 2003, partner Ron Motley worked on the tobacco suits with his firm Ness, Motley, Loadholdt, Richardson & Poole. The firm was hired by the Rhode Island attorney general in 1999 to sue paint manufacturers and a trade group for the harm caused by lead paint.

“They were one of the original firms to come up with this business model, if you will, wherein they dream up lawsuits designed to fleece a deep-pocket defendant,” McKinney said. “They go about to friendly AGs, pitching the lawsuits.”

The deal is attractive to attorneys general, who agree to pay the law firm on a contingency basis, meaning only if it wins a verdict or settlement. Meanwhile, the state’s lawyer can appeal to voters with the “free money” the effort achieved, he said.

As an attorney working at Cohen Milstein, Singer earned a reputation in the private client practice area. Singer featured prominently in a December 2014 New York Times article on an industry that pits attorneys general and plaintiff's attorneys against corporate giants.

“Much as big industries have found natural allies in Republican attorneys general to combat federal regulations, the plaintiff's lawyers working on a contingency-fee basis have teamed up mostly with Democratic state attorneys general to file hundreds of lawsuits against businesses that make anything from pharmaceuticals to snack foods," the Times article says.

The article continues: “The lawsuits follow a pattern: Private lawyers, who scour the news media and public records looking for potential cases in which a state or its consumers have been harmed, approach attorneys general. The attorneys general hire the private firms to do the necessary work, with the understanding that the firms will front most of the cost of the investigation and the litigation. The firms take a fee, typically 20 percent, and the state takes the rest of any money won from the defendants.”

Using emails and contracts, the Times tells of Singer approaching New Mexico Attorney General Gary King in 2012 and proposing litigation against a Texas-based nursing home chain operating in his state. The suit relied on calculations that Singer used to allege that the nursing home didn’t have enough staff, thus claiming residents were mistreated. It’s one of dozens of lawsuits that Singer reportedly pitched to attorneys general.

“But King said that because Cohen Milstein was covering most of the cost, there was little risk to the state, adding that he was receptive to this approach because of what he said had been a disturbing pattern of abuse in his state’s nursing homes,” the Times reported.

According to the Times, Singer isn’t the only former attorney general to use her connections to pursue this line of private practice. McKinney said attorneys general and plaintiff's attorneys are part of the same close-knit community that includes annual gatherings and conventions.

“Many, if not most (attorneys general), have come from the plaintiff's bar to begin with – certainly in the bluer states where AGs are thought of less as the state’s lawyer than they are as a super consumer protector,” McKinney said.

ATRA has successfully lobbied for reforms in some states, requiring more transparency in contracts attorneys general pursue with private attorneys. It sees contingency-fee arrangements as problematic because of the assumption that plaintiff's attorneys will pursue as high a dollar figure as possible to make themselves rich. Additionally, multiple reports have shown it's not unusual for attorneys general to receive large campaign contributions from these firms and attorneys.

“If a company does wrong in a state, they ought to be brought to justice," McKinney said. "They ought to make state residents whole. No one is opposed to righteous litigation for good cause, but the idea that there would be these multimillionaire trial lawyers actively pitching trumped-up, often novel liability theories to state attorneys general and basically pitching a win-win … and then leveling these lawsuits at often-enough very upstanding corporate citizens who pay significant amounts of taxes, employ thousands of Americans, who make goods and services that we all love to buy and use – this is a very sick thing.”

The courts have tended not to agree with opponents' concerns, however. As Singer herself pointed out in an article for Law360 published last year, many attempts to challenge these arrangements have failed.

“As a former attorney general, I do not believe that outside counsel is appropriate in every case filed by the government," Singer wrote. "But to take on mortgage fraud by large banks, oil spills and health care fraud, the use of outside counsel has been an essential resource in the government’s toolbox. Otherwise, we face a dual system of justice in which the government cannot hope to apply the rules equally to large corporations, with legions of lawyers at their disposal, whose scorched-earth litigation tactics outmatch their enforcers and enable them to avoid accountability. The use of outside counsel helps government to enforce the law even-handedly, against all offenders, regardless of how many lawyers they can muster.”

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