Nashville at law: Law partners land in court amid acrimonious breakup

Monday, June 9, 2008 at 3:33am

Breaking up can be hard to do — not just in love, but also in business.

Nashville attorney Sean Hornbeck has sued his former law partner, Tracey Robinson-Coffee. The two are caught up in a dispute over money and firm ownership that has escalated to involve threats and allegations of fraud, according to the legal complaint.

In his lawsuit, filed May 29 in Davidson County Chancery Court, Hornbeck asks the court to dissolve his firm, Law Offices of Sean K. Hornbeck PC. He asserts he owned a majority of its stock from the beginning and eventually bought out Robinson-Coffee. But he says she continues to pursue him with claims that she is entitled to real or imagined revenues generated by the firm.

The two began practicing together in late 2006. Hornbeck had moved to Nashville after working for the prominent New York firm Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP. Robinson-Coffee had been with the law firm of Blackburn and McCune, well known locally for its litigation practice.

Hornbeck paints himself as having gone out of his way to be generous to Robinson-Coffee during the brief time they practiced together and even after she left the firm in 2007 to take a state job. He says that while at the firm, she “was given certain corporate perks and advantages, including a car allowance and child's food allowance, which was not reasonably tied to her equity contribution or her contribution to the company’s net income.” And he says that after her departure, he continued her health insurance through the end of last year despite the emergence of the current dispute.

If Robinson-Coffee’s name sounds familiar, the government job for which she quit the law firm may be the reason. As director of the office of licensure at the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, she was quoted in a number of local and national media reports last year on teen fatalities at the Chad Youth Enhancement Center in Montgomery County. She apparently left her state position some months ago and is now practicing law in Jacksonville, Fla.

Hornbeck says Robinson-Coffee objected to aspects of the firm's tax calculations for the 2007 fiscal year and “alleged some type of fraud.” He claims she “challenged all the accounting, repeatedly called the office, and demanded the office staff perform work for her.” After providing “extensive, unnecessary, duplicative and cumbersome supporting documentation,” Hornbeck says, he was able to get her to sign off on the taxes.

More recently, Hornbeck claims, his former partner “became irate and started to make allegations regarding fraud” when she learned he was applying newly earned law fees toward the firm's debt. She argued that she was entitled to a portion of that money.

“In light of the allegations made by defendant, Mr. Hornbeck desires the court’s assistance in winding down the affairs of the company,” the lawsuit says.

Reached at her Jacksonville office on Thursday, Robinson-Coffee said she had not yet been served with the lawsuit. She did not respond with further comment after a copy was sent to her.

Nashville lawyer M. Katherine Everette is representing Hornbeck.

OTHER CASES OF NOTE (May 29-June 4)

Tennessee Court of Appeals:

Andrew H. Blackburn v. CSX Transportation Inc. Filed May 30. After he was thrown from a rail car, CSX employee Blackburn won a jury award of $2.9 million. Judge Barbara Haynes of Davidson County Circuit Court, in her "13th juror" capacity as provided by law, threw out the verdict and ordered a new trial on the grounds that the evidence had not supported the jury’s conclusion.

On appeal, Blackburn prevails. The case returns to Circuit with a mandate to judge the CSX motion for a new trial by different standards. Opinion by Judge Patricia J. Cottrell. Blackburn's attorneys: James G. Thomas and William T. Ramsey of Neal & Harwell PLC, Nashville, Tennessee. CSX's attorneys: Christopher W. Cardwell and Mary Taylor Gallagher of Gullett Sanford Robinson & Martin PLLC.

United States District Court for Middle Tennessee:

City of Goodlettsville, Tenn. and City of Brentwood, Tenn. v. Priceline.com et al. Filed June 2. This lawsuit, seeking class-action status, asserts that discount travel site Priceline does not remit hotel taxes to communities as it should. Representing the cities, attorneys J. Todd Moore and T. Holland McKinnie of Franklin are local counsel to several class-action specialist firms from around the country.

Davidson County Chancery Court:

Urban Housing Solutions Inc. v. Regions Bank. Filed June 2. Affordable housing charity claims it had a no-prepayment-penalty deal in borrowing from Regions. But when a new Tennessee banking program made it possible to borrow elsewhere at rates well below market, Regions refused to accept a payoff check. The lawsuit implies that the bank wants to charge a prepayment fee after all. Declaratory relief sought. Plaintiff's attorney: Alan D. Mazer of Nashville.

FRP Inc. v. The AIM Group Inc. Filed June 3. Book-publishing unit of Southwestern/Great American Inc. claims a customer it signed last August, Brentwood-based AIM, has run up almost $195,000 in overdue invoices. Plaintiff's attorneys: Gary C. Pears of Southwestern/Great American legal department, with Sean C. Kirk of Miller & Martin PLLC in Nashville.

Davidson County Circuit Court:

Michael H. Sneed v. Board of Professional Responsibility for the State of Tennessee. Filed May 29. When Nashville attorney Mike Sneed was accused of abetting a ripoff scheme that targeted the local Hispanic community, it was apparently the last straw for the board that regulates legal practice in the state. In years past, the BPR has suspended his license once and censured him four times for other transgressions. Facing disbarment proceedings, he is now suing the board for taking "arbitrary and capricious" action against him. He filed the complaint on his own behalf.

John F. Pinkard M.D. v. HCA Health Services of Tennessee Inc. d/b/a Summit Medical Center. Filed May 30. Thoracic surgeon Pinkard goes after Summit seeking damages for acts by the Hermitage hospital that have "ruined" his medical career. He demands that it rescind its decision in 2006 to ban him from conducting surgery at the HCA-owned hospital. Plaintiff's attorneys: C. Bennett Harrison Jr. and Brian W. Holmes of Cornelius & Collins LLP.

Priscilla Primm o/b/o Ricky Primm (deceased) and Rekisha Wilkerson v. Metropolitan Hospital Authority and Jane Doe. Filed May 29. Ricky Primm, left in a permanent vegetative state after a 2006 automobile accident, died at Bordeaux Hospital in June 2007. His heirs allege that the hospital cared poorly for him, allowing his body to become "infested with pin worms and maggots" that caused or hastened his death. Plaintiff's attorney: Michael H. Sneed (yes, the same Sneed mentioned above).

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