May 31, 2012 | In The News, Sean Breen
By Patrick George
Former Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield is seeking depositions for a possible lawsuit against his ex-employer, the largest statewide police union in Texas, which fired him last year.
Sheffield, who was fired in July from his job as a training coordinator and field service representative for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, has filed a petition in Travis County state District Court seeking information about allegations of criminal acts he said the union made against him.
The petition said Sheffield is seeking documents and statements from union Executive Director John Burpo, board President Todd Harrison and others.
“We have reason to believe the board members of CLEAT circulated defamatory comments and wrongfully accused Mr. Sheffield of committing a crime,” said Sheffield’s attorney, Austin lawyer Sean E. Breen.
John Curtis, CLEAT’s corporate counsel, said the union is considering whether to pursue criminal charges against Sheffield. CLEAT provides legal representation, lobbying and other support services for Texas’ law enforcement officers.
“He took and destroyed work product we strongly believe belonged to this organization,” Curtis said, saying officials there believe Sheffield violated the state’s computer crime laws.
Breen said that Sheffield was specifically accused of deleting information from a CLEAT computer and that the accusations are false. He said that multiple agencies — including federal authorities and district attorneys in Travis and Williamson counties — did not bring charges against Sheffield.
“In law enforcement, reputation is everything,” Breen said. “When someone is accused of a crime, it cuts to the very heart of their integrity as a police officer.
Law enforcement officials discussed the matter last year, but CLEAT never formally asked the Travis County district attorney’s office to investigate the claims, Assistant District Attorney Gail Van Winkle said.
Sheffield served as president of the Austin Police Association union from 1998 until 2006. After retiring from the Police Department, he was employed by CLEAT until last year.
Breen said Sheffield has not decided whether to sue CLEAT and is pursuing a federal claim through the National Labor Relations Board to get his job back.
Curtis said CLEAT is looking into asking a federal judge to stop the possible lawsuit until the labor claim is resolved.
“This is just another legal shenanigan he’s pulling,” Curtis said. “The other shoe hasn’t fallen yet. It’s going to be a bumpy road.”
According to a CLEAT memo from July, Sheffield was fired for “interfering with the (Austin Police Association)” and for attempting to publicly discredit the statewide union.
Sheffield said he believes he was fired after he raised concerns about an arrangement between CLEAT and the Austin Police Association. Under that arrangement, Harrison, an Austin Police Department sergeant, worked for CLEAT full time funded by officers’ earned sick time while CLEAT gave the Austin Police Association $50,000. That was not mentioned in Sheffield’s termination memo, which he provided.
After the American-Statesman reported on the agreement, CLEAT began reimbursing the City of Austin for Harrison’s salary and benefits. He is currently vice president of the Austin Police Association.
Contact Patrick George at
CORRECTION: This story originally stated Mike Sheffield had been cleared of wrongdoing. Charges have not been brought against him.
Tags: criminal charges, fired, police union
September 27, 2011 | In The News
By Eric Dexheimer, American-Statesman Staff
Karen Reimus slowly pilots an SUV through her Scripps Ranch neighborhood of large Tuscan-looking homes with red tile roofs and meticulously tended lawns. As kids play and adults stroll the streets greeting each other by name, she points out the homes that vaporized eight years ago after the Cedar Fire leapt through the subdivision, leveling more than 300 homes.
“That one burned, that one burned, that one burned, that one didn’t, that one did.” It sounds like a grim version of “duck, duck, goose.”
When Reimus returned for the first time after the fire, a deputy manning a checkpoint warned her of the devastation. “But,” she said, “nothing could prepare me.” Forty-six of 47 homes on her street were gone.
“It looks like a regular neighborhood now,” Reimus said, “but at the time. …” Her voice trails off.
Like many of her neighbors, Reimus and her husband rebuilt. But getting the money from their insurance company wasn’t easy. “We bought this house four months before it burned down,” she said. “I told my agent I want full coverage. This was not cheapinsurance.net. I got the earthquake rider and extended replacement policy, which meant if there was a demand surge that increased rebuilding prices, you’ll still have enough money.”
Yet almost immediately she found herself butting heads with the company. “My husband and I are both lawyers, so it’s hard to imagine two people better positioned to advocate for themselves,” she said. “And let me tell you, it was a nightmare.”
It was a common complaint. Some insurance companies paid fully and promptly. But advocates who worked with Cedar Fire survivors said many did not, fighting policyholders on replacement values and offering appraisals far short of rebuilding costs.
“Almost everyone was underinsured to some degree,” said Valerie Nash, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based consultant who helped communities recover in the aftermath of the fires. In some cases, she added, residents of poorer areas burned by the Cedar Fire were completely uninsured, either because they couldn’t afford premiums, or because their homes had been deemed uninsurable because of their location in areas deemed at high risk of wildfire.
“It was very widespread,” added George Kehrer, who founded Community Assisting Recovery — CARe — several years after losing his home in the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, primarily to help survivors navigate the insurance maze, and who worked with Cedar Fire survivors. The organization also publishes “Disaster Recovery: A Survivor’s Guide to Insurance.”
He and other advocates counsel survivors to contact nonprofit consumer organizations for advice on how to avoid common pitfalls, such as settling too early for too little money. “We like to say: Your adjuster may be friendly, but he is not your friend,” said Reimus, who after the Cedar Fire went to work for United Policyholders, which educates disaster survivors about insurance and distributes “The Disaster Recovery Handbook.”
“If you have lost your house, you’ve just started a poker game for professionals who play all day long,” added David Kassel, who founded the Cedar Fire Rebuilding Resource Group after losing his home. “And you are a rank amateur and the pot on the table is your house.” He eventually settled with his insurer through arbitration; his house took three full years to rebuild.
The industry insisted that intentional undercoverage and low-balling were not widespread after the 2003 fires. But in 2004, following public meetings at which angry Cedar Fire survivors vented about their coverage to state officials, California legislators passed a homeowner’s bill of rights.
Among other reforms, it extended the amount of time, from one year to two, that insurers had to pay living expenses while policyholders rebuilt their homes during a declared emergency; allowed survivors to rebuild a new home wherever they chose; and prohibited companies from canceling policies while a burned home was being rebuilt.
Texas policyholders already have some comparable protections from the state’s own consumer bill of rights, said Deeia Beck, executive director of the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, a government agency that represents consumers. But she added that some companies do write policies limiting living expense reimbursements to a year and requiring homeowners to rebuild on their burned sites.
Tags: appraisals, Cedar Fire survivors, insurance company, Scripps Ranch
September 2, 2011 | In The News, Sean Breen
by Chuck Lindell, America-Statesman Staff
A Travis County jury has awarded $6.2 million to a former Austin musician who, after drinking at a private party, was paralyzed when he dove into an underfilled apartment complex pool in 2005.
Jurors determined that the man, Jordan VanDusen, was 49 percent responsible for his injuries and the owner of Longhorn Landing Apartments was 51 percent liable for failing to close a dangerous pool or warn swimmers that water levels had fallen about 11/2 feet.
The division of liability means VanDusen, left a quadriplegic with limited use of his arms, would receive 51 percent of the $12.4 million in damages if the judgment stands. Jurors returned the verdict Monday night after two days of deliberations and a nine-day trial.
“We never, ever contested responsibility for Jordan,” said Sean Breen, VanDusen’s lawyer. “He admitted he made a mistake — a momentary, thoughtless mistake.”
But swimmers also should be able to expect that an open pool is safe to use, Breen said. Instead, he said, managers of the apartment complex at 4700 E. Riverside Drive failed to close the pool even though employees noticed that water levels had dropped and even though state and city laws require underfilled public pools to be closed.
In addition, testimony showed that Aspen Square Management — which owned the apartment complex when VanDusen was injured but sold it in October — did not have appropriate safety procedures in place, Breen said.
VanDusen was a guitarist, singer and songwriter for the now-defunct band JVD who had moved from New York state to Austin with bandmates two years before the accident. A videotape, shot by a friend and played for jurors, showed a group roughhousing around the pool at 2 a.m. before VanDusen, then 23, dove into an area that should have been 4 to 41/2 feet deep but instead was 21/2 to 3 feet deep.
Jeff Ray, lawyer for Aspen Square, said the company will appeal the verdict.
Ray argued that VanDusen was solely responsible for his injury because the pool’s depth was obvious, signs prohibited diving at the pool and VanDusen’s judgment was impaired by alcohol. Blood tests after the accident showed VanDusen’s blood alcohol level was 0.09, he said. The legal limit to drive in Texas is 0.08.
Breen argued that the apartment complex, marketed to college-age residents, condoned pool parties where alcohol was consumed, yet neglected to plan for associated risks.
But Ray noted that jurors, answering a separate question, also found VanDusen to be 51 percent responsible for negligence in causing his injury. “If a plaintiff is more responsible for causing the accident, the plaintiff receives nothing,” he said. “So we believe there is a conflicting jury finding that we will appeal.”
Ray also will ask District Judge Orlinda Naranjo to dismiss or reduce the award before Naranjo enters a final judgment, which typically takes about a month.
Since the accident, VanDusen has been living in New York, where Medicaid benefits are more generous, but hopes the jury award will let him return to Austin.
“I really enjoy it down here; a lot of my friends still live here, and I hate the cold and snow of New York,” VanDusen said. “This means I’ll have options and better care from doctors and therapists familiar with my type of injury.”
Now 28, VanDusen hopes to continue writing songs by computer and recently purchased a harmonica “so at least I can play an instrument.”
Tags: Austin musician, underfilled pool
August 29, 2011 | In The News, Randy Howry
By Claire Osborn, Austin American-Statesman Staff
A Williamson County jury decided this month that three people were negligent in the drinking death of an underage girl: a liquor store employee, the girl’s mother and the 17-year-old herself.
Savannah Skye Smith died of alcohol poisoning on Feb. 10, 2009, according to a lawsuit filed by her mother, Debra Smith, against the employee of the liquor store, James East, and his wife, Terri Bayless East, who owned the store.
The lawsuit accused James East of knowingly selling alcohol to an underage Savannah at Avery Fine Wines and Spirits on Parmer Lane in Austin from July 2008, when the girl was 16, until the day of her death. (more…)
Tags: alcohol poisoning, Austin American Statesman, underage drinking
June 30, 2011 | In The News, Sean Breen
By Gary Dinges, Austin American-Statesman Staff
Two people injured earlier this month when a pair of glass panels fell more than 20 stories into the pool area at the W Austin are suing the hotel and operator Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide.
The suit, filed late yesterday by attorney Sean Breen, alleges the hotel had been warned about potential problems with the glass prior to the June 10 incident. After the panels fell, the two hotel guests claim the W’s response was inadequate, allowing three more to crash down Monday afternoon.
“One of the major concerns of my clients is that the W wasn’t doing what it needed to do,” Breen said. “This is clearly a serious problem.” (more…)
Tags: Austin American Statesman, balcony glass panels, Resorts Worldwide, Starwood Hotels, W Austin
May 23, 2011 | In The News, Sean Breen
By Steven Kreytak, Austin American-Statesman Staff
A Dallas-area man who Travis County prosecutors say had his $1 million lottery ticket stolen by a convenience store clerk in 2009 has sued the Texas Lottery Commission and others in hopes of recovering all of his winnings.
Lawyers for Willis Willis, a retired Grand Prairie maintenance man, filed the suit in state District Court in Travis County last week against the lottery commission, Gtech Corp, which runs the lottery, and the owner of a convenience store where Willis bought his ticket. (more…)
Tags: $1 million lottery ticket, Austin American Statesman, Texas Lottery Commission, Willis Willis
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