One of Mobile County’s smallest public housing boards is preparing to battle one of the area’s largest law firms, in what’s shaping up to be the latest court case involving the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority (BLBHA). On Dec. 29, Burr & Forman LLP filed a lawsuit against BLBHA, alleging the five-member board refuses to pay a $21,000 bill for legal services retained when the board attempted to sell its 99-unit Safe Harbor housing development last year.
As Lagniappe has previously reported, the entire board suddenly resigned in September before the multimillion-dollar sale was complete, effectively killing an agreement to award nearly the entire proceeds to former Executive Director Virginia Huddleston and her husband, former Facilities Manager Darryl Wilson. In its complaint, Burr & Forman said it represented BLBHA “with regard to the sale” of Safe Harbor “and related matters” from November 2019 until October 2020.
With an entirely new housing board since appointed, Burr & Forman claims it sent a final demand letter on Dec. 7, but the board “has refused to pay the outstanding amounts and has substantially failed to fulfill obligations.” During the agreement, BLBHA was represented by Burr & Forman Managing Partner Doug Anderson, but the complaint was filed by Associate Roger Varner Jr.
Anderson has told Lagniappe he had no knowledge of the employment contract amendments that awarded Huddleston and Wilson the combined retirement package, valued at $4,182,771, upon the sale of Safe Harbor.
But current BLBHA Chairman Johnny Hatcher said he doesn’t believe the firm provided honest legal services during the arrangement, and “the board doesn’t have an obligation to pay anyone involved in the scheme” to liquidate its assets. Further, he claims the firm has refused to provide an itemized invoice or records of payments the board submitted prior to the turnover.
“I have a fiduciary duty to the board and we can’t go giving money away just because someone says we owe it to them,” Hatcher said.
According to court records, Anderson also represented the board in a pair of lawsuits filed last year by Bayou La Batre Mayor Terry Downey, after the city sought to obtain financial records from the board and later, when the board attempted to prevent Hatcher’s appointment. Hatcher said he held no personal animosity toward Anderson, but was curious why Burr & Forman would agree to represent the board in the sale when another attorney advised it could be illegal.
“They went lawyer shopping until they found someone who would do it,” he said. “I’m not upset with him, I just have questions about why he would take a client and represent a deal other attorneys advised against. It’s my opinion the guy is either complicit or incompetent, and you don’t get to be the managing partner of a law firm like that by being incompetent.”
Separately, BLBHA sued Huddleston, Wilson and five former board members last month in a nine-count complaint alleging breach of fiduciary duty, civil conspiracy, conversion, negligence, wantonness and unjust enrichment, among other things. Court records do not reflect that any of the defendants have answered the complaint, and Hatcher said a criminal investigation remains ongoing.
“We have heard from some people who are willing to cooperate with our investigation,” he said. “The truth of all this will come out.”
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