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Black farmersí lawyers fight over money
Alabama-based counsel bicker over fees
 
Published Tuesday, December 24, 2013 11:13 am
by Phillip Rawls, The Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – One of the South’s prominent African-American law firms has disintegrated in a fight over money after helping black farmers nationwide win $1.2 billion in a discrimination case.

The Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders law firm in Selma once had nearly 40 employees and handled high-profile cases ranging from defending capital murder defendants to pursuing civil rights complaints. In recent years, it has shrunk dramatically and struggled with financial problems.

Now, the family of the late J.L. Chestnut Jr. is fighting his former partners, state Sen. Hank Sanders and his wife, Faya Rose Sanders, over how to divide a $5.2 million fee that arose from the black farmers’ discrimination case.

An attorney for the Chestnut family, retired Circuit Judge Claud Neilson said the family deserves a significant share because Chestnut was a major figure in the farmers’ case from the start and was “a very well-known and respected lawyer” who helped the firm generate income. He said the family tried to work out an agreement with the Sanders, but couldn’t.

Hank Sanders said the other side doesn’t want to consider the large debt the case caused. “This is painful because J.l., Faya Rose and I worked together for 36 years,” he said.

Chestnut, a prominent civil rights attorney who represented demonstrators arrested in west Alabama in the 1960s, joined with Hank and Faya Rose Sanders to launch the firm in 1972. Other partners came and went over the years, but the three original partners remained the bedrock of the firm until Chestnut died in 2008.

In addition to practicing law, Hank Sanders got elected to the state Senate and became a major force in Democratic politics.

But the firm was best known for the black farmers’ case. It began with a lawsuit in 1997 with black farmers alleging discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Several law firms were involved, but Chestnut was one of the faces of the case, testifying to Congress and speaking across the country to alert black farmers. The farmers originally got $100,000. Then a second round of litigation produced $1.15 billion, bringing the total to $1.25 billion.

“When the black farmers’ case began, we were the largest black law firm in the state. We were once one of the 10 largest black law firms in the country. We had nearly 40 employees. The first black farmers’ case broke our firm financially, numerically and otherwise. Now, I am the only partner in the firm,” Hank Sanders said in a statement.

Chestnut’s family contends he played a major rule through the entire black farmers’ case and worked on it until a month before his death. They argue that his estate is due a major part of the $5.2 million fee that is now being held in a special account.

Hank Sanders said the firm had $2 million in debts and owed another $1.5 million to its pension program when Chestnut died. “By any evaluation, the Chestnut estate would owe the law firm rather than the firm owing,” Sanders said.

Sanders said Chestnut was heavily involved in the first part of the black farmers’ case that produced the $100,000, but he said he and his wife did most of the firm’s work on the second, more lucrative part.

The once thriving firm is struggling. Sanders said he and his wife have taken out a $225,000 mortgage on their house to keep the law firm going, and she retired from practicing law “because the earnings went to pay debts and she was not getting paid year after year. I was left with all the debts.”

Both sides say they never wanted a 36-year partnership to end up in a court battle, but they want to be treated fairly.

“It is very painful to do legal battle with a family that we worked with so well for so many years,” Hank Sanders said.

“It is unfortunate,” Neilson said.

 

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