Texas lawyer used forged signature in Gulf spill case, judge rules

NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge scolded a Texas lawyer he has tangled with before in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill case, ruling Friday the attorney used a contract with a forged signature to assert that he represented a fisherman and was entitled to a cut of that man’s share of last year’s multibillion settlement with BP.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier told attorney Brent Coon, who has offices in Houston and Beaumont, that the signature on the contract Coon submitted doesn’t match Dien Nguyen’s known signature on other documents he submitted to the court. Barbier said he believes the signature on the contract was forged.

As a result, Coon is not entitled to any funds Nguyen receives as part of the settlement between BP and victims who suffered economic or health damages in the 2010 disaster, Barbier said. He issued the same decision for another attorney who also purported to represent Nguyen, James J. Dailey of Mobile, Ala. Coon and Dailey have partnered in representing plaintiffs in the Gulf spill case.

“It is clear to me Mr. Dailey or Mr. Coon didn’t provide legal work entitling them to legal fees,” Barbier said.

He dismissed the lien that Coon had filed against Nguyen’s compensation claim.

Barbier did not say in his ruling who he believes forged the signature, nor did he suggest whether his decision might have any further repercussions.

In a telephone interview after court, Coon said the ruling gives him “part concern, part irritation,” but he believes his firm acted appropriately. He said in a statement later that he has referred the matter to the State Bar of Texas for an “ethics appeal,” and will cooperate if the judge or others make further inquiries.

“There’s always the potential for him doing that,” Coon said.

Barbier had ordered Coon to appear for a hearing in federal court in New Orleans to explain why his claim for a 25 percent cut of Nguyen’s expected compensation under the settlement with BP should not be denied.

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Coon told Barbier he never met Nguyen. He said documents in his files show a woman who works for Dailey’s paralegal signed up Nguyen to be Dailey’s client at a community gathering following the oil spill.

Nguyen, speaking through an interpreter, said he did not think the meeting he attended was for the purpose of hiring an attorney and he does not recall signing anything that day.

Coon insisted Nguyen did sign with Dailey and, by extension, Coon’s firm, and he suggested the fact Nguyen doesn’t understand English well may help explain the dispute.

“We’re kind of in a sensitive situation because we have a client who is on the outs with us,” Coon said.

Coon asserted that Nguyen has been seeking to dismiss Coon’s firm and represent himself.

Barbier seemed skeptical of the explanations.

“Apparently, someone else signed his name to a contract,” Barbier said. “I find he did not knowingly hire an attorney.”

Dailey also was ordered to appear at the hearing because he also claimed to represent Nguyen, though it is unclear if he also was seeking legal fees.

On his website, Coon says that he represents nearly 15,000 victims of the Gulf oil spill, the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. He also describes his firm as having “led the charge against BP” after the disaster.

He and Barbier have tangled before, when Coon said many of his clients would opt out of the class-action settlement between BP and thousands of individuals and businesses affected by the spill. BP has alleged many of the opt-out requests were not validly signed by claimants individually but rather submitted as a group by Coon.